Gretna delays discretionary funds in budget squeeze

Isaac cleaned out emergency fund

Facing an empty cupboard when it came to disaster funding, the Gretna City Council decided to delay allocating money for discretionary spending, possibly until fall.

At the urging of Councilman Wayne Rau, the council agreed to delay allocating $750,000 that typically would have been dedicated to the discretionary funds of the mayor and council. Rau asked for the delay because the city’s emergency fund, which is used to pay for operations during disasters, was emptied during Hurricane Isaac last summer. That fund had about $490,000.

In total, Gretna spent about $2 million providing services during Isaac, and Finance Director Raylyn Stephens said she’s not certain exactly how much the city will be reimbursed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency only reimburses cities up to 75 percent of allowed costs, and there are questions about how much of Gretna’s spending will meet the agency’s criteria, she said.

Rau said he wasn’t comfortable with going through hurricane season without having money set aside to pay for emergency services. While he recognized the need for district projects, he said emergency preparedness should be the priority.

“If we have an event that happens, we at least have the money to get us over that situation,” Rau said. “I think that if we don’t save some money on the side … We might get ourselves into some trouble.”

Rau initially asked to put a hold on the $750,000 until September, but the council compromised and agreed to wait until after FEMA makes a decision on reimbursement. That could happen as early as May.

Rau’s plan initially met with some pushback from council members Vincent Cox III and Belinda Constant. Constant and Cox are both running for mayor, and they said they didn’t want to burden their replacements on the council with any limitations on the work they can do.

Cox also complained that he’d wanted to dedicate about $50,000 from his discretionary fund to start engineering work on a project to shore up the Heebe Canal in Gretna. The banks of that canal are collapsing, and while it is likely an extended repair project, Cox said he’d hoped to get started this year. Rau promised Cox that he was working on some other funding mechanisms for that project but wouldn’t discuss details, which seemed to annoy Cox.

“I don’t know what something is in concept, but I know what this is in reality,” said Cox, who chided Rau for not speaking to the rest of the council about his plans earlier.

Each district council member was slated to receive $150,000 while Rau and Mayor Ronnie Harris would receive $75,000 each. Harris praised the council’s decision, noting that considering Gretna’s tight 2013-2014 budget, which projects a general fund surplus of less than $3,000, it was the only way to prepare for an emergency.

“The only wiggle room I believe in this budget is the discretionary dollars,” Harris said.