Mandeville council approves budget

After a summer of at times rancorous debate, the Mandeville council approved a city budget Thursday of more than $36 million for 2013-2014.

But the exact budgeted amounts remained unclear late Thursday, as the council made several last-minute amendments to the city’s budget as presented by the mayor.

Finance Director Frank Oliveri said he would have to go back and re-calculate many of the numbers.

Conflicts between the mayor and council flared repeatedly, especially around the question of the status of a contracted employee and amounts allocated for employee health insurance.

The council refused Mayor Donald Villere’s request to change the status of Keep Mandeville Beautiful Executive Director Susan Russell. Since 2006, Russell has contracted with the city.

But Villere contended that Russell’s duties have grown and evolved, making her more like a city employee.

Two weeks ago, the council questioned Human Resources Director Gretchen McKinney, who said Russell’s duties fit better as an employee of the city. Assistant city attorney Laurie Pennison, meanwhile, said Thursday the city potentially could be held liable if Russell was involved in an accident while doing city work as a contractor.

Russell said she had approached the city about becoming an employee. She said her duties had evolved since she signed her first contract, and the position now required day-to-day management.

But Councilman Ernest Burguières questioned McKinney and Pettison on what the legal threshhold was to determine whether Russell fit better as an employee or a contractor.

When Pennison said she had not had time to research the answers to all of Burguières questions, he moved that a decision on the matter be deferred. In the end, the council amended the proposed budget to keep Russell a contractor, but promised to revisit the matter once a legal opinion had been offered.

The council also debated at length the budgeted amount for employee health care. In a previous meeting, the council had reduced the budgeted amount from $2.5 million to $2.3 million. But Thursday night, Councilman David Ellis proposed reducing the amount further, to the budgeted amount for 2012-2013, or $2.1 million.

That move drew a sharp response from Jack McGuire, a former city councilman from 1984 to 2000, who attended the meeting and spoke during the meeting’s public comment period..

“This budget is balanced on the backs of city employees,” he said during an impassioned speech. “We are not telling employees where the reductions are coming from.”

McGuire also chastised the council for limiting salary raises for employees.

Mayor Pro-Tem Clay Madden took issue with McGuire’s characterization, saying it was the council’s job to allocate the funds and the mayor’s job to negotiate the best deal for employees.

“The mayor could negotiate a plan that does not reduce benefits,” Madden said.

The council approved Ellis’ motion.