Kenner eyes car allowance cuts to pay for recycling

“We just asked (employees) to do a little more with less to fund a progressive program for a progressive city.” Mayor Michael Yenni, Kenner

Just one year after a debate over car allowances for Kenner’s employees dominated the city’s politics, Mayor Michael Yenni is planning to cut those allowances to pay for the city’s popular recycling program.

During budget discussion Monday, Yenni informed the council that he was cutting car allowances for 30 of Kenner’s unclassified employees in half to pay for a recycling program that has greatly exceeded the city’s initial estimates. Yenni told the council that the cuts would generate about $40,000 for recycling, which should pay for a larger recycling bin at the city’s most popular recycling site at Kenner City Park and add a new bin at North Kenner Park.

Yenni acknowledged that the change negatively affects employees but said residents have made it clear they want recycling.

“We just asked (employees) to do a little more with less to fund a progressive program for a progressive city,” Yenni said.

Councilman Joe Stagni raised concerns about the cuts since those car allowances were only approved by the Kenner City Council after much debate about whether they represented compensation or reimbursements for the city’s full-time unclassified employees.

Yenni’s administration even received an opinion from the Louisiana attorney general on the issue in the fall.

The car allowances top out at $400 per month and are coupled with a $150 maximum allowance for wireless plans. Stagni initially thought wireless allowances were being cut as well, but Chief Administrative Officer Mike Quigley said he believes the cuts only apply to car allowances.

The city spends about $100,000 annually for both wireless and car allowances.

Stagni said he expressed concerns about the allowances when the issue first came up, but now he better understands exactly how much work employees do with their vehicles and their personal phones. He said it doesn’t seem right to tap those funds to pay for the recycling program.

“This is one funding mechanism where I have some concern,” Stagni said.

He questioned whether the city would have been able to avoid the car allowance cuts if it had negotiated a better deal with Ramelli Waste when it agreed to its garbage contract. That contract was renegotiated under somewhat controversial conditions by Yenni without a competitive bid process and without the input or knowledge of the council.

Stagni noted that he’s discovered that the city of Slidell is able to get recycling and garbage collection services for the same amount that Kenner pays for garbage collection alone. He said Kenner would have been in much better shape if Yenni had allowed competition and forced companies to battle each other for the city’s business.

However, Yenni said the city is receiving a fairly competitive deal from Ramelli. The city pays the company $150 every time it empties a recycling bin, but participation by residents has made the program far exceed the $10,000 budget the city initially set.

Yenni stressed that he still believes that employees deserve and need the car allowances at their full levels, but the city’s budget can only support so much.

“This was the best way we could find to fund it,” Yenni said. “I’m not recounting anything that I said earlier other than this is an additional service, and we need to fund it. … We’ve been cutting and cutting for all these years, and there’s nothing left to cut.”

Kenner is discussing this week the finances for all of its departments for the 2013-14 fiscal year prior to Thursday’s council meeting. Recycling had been a candidate for the chopping block as recently as March because Yenni expressed concern about whether the city could afford to maintain the service.

Some of that concern was based on the fact that the city had a roughly $2 million operating deficit in Yenni’s $58 million budget. Yenni is proposing cutting Kenner’s citywide capital projects budget to make up that deficit.