Westwego council approves 2013 budget

“We feel like the services we provide to the city are the ones we want to keep… We just have to do more with less.” John Shaddinger, Westwego mayor

The City Council approved Mayor John Shaddinger’s 2013 budget on Monday, but only after some pointed questions about the city’s overall direction and the management of its $4 million Farmers and Fisheries Market.

Shaddinger’s budget, which was approved on a 4-1 vote, projects about $14.1 million in general fund revenue and roughly $15.7 million in expenditures. The budget expects the city to have slightly less than $250,000 in reserves throughout the year, well below the more than $2 million a city of Westwego’s size should have in reserve.

“Fifteen percent (of revenues) is what’s recommended by the legislative auditor,” said James Butler, the city’s accountant.

Shaddinger, as he has throughout his four years as mayor, noted that Westwego is operating on a “bare bones” budget, although this year’s reserves are an improvement from years when Westwego had $60,000 in reserve. Shaddinger said he’s cut the budget as much as possible without having to resort to layoffs or decreases in the services that residents demand.

He added the city also had the increasingly familiar issue of hurricane-related costs.

“We feel like the services we provide to the city are the ones we want to keep… We just have to do more with less,” Shaddinger said. “In the past, we were planning for storms every 20 years, but now you have to pretty much do that on a regular basis.”

But Councilman Larry Warino, who voted against the budget for the second straight year, said the city is suffering from a lack of leadership. He criticized Shaddinger for failing to propose any creative ways to improve the city’s lot.

“It’s the same thing every year. We just take last year’s budget and put in some numbers,” Warino complained. “I just don’t think we’re doing a good job of cutting back on things.”

But Councilman Ivy Rogers challenged anyone to find any more ways to trim the budget. Shaddinger pressed Warino to provide specifics on how he’d like to see the budget improved, but Warino demurred, adding that politicians were unlikely to support tough changes months before a city election.

On Tuesday, Shaddinger said he believes the city’s fortunes will improve when the Huey P. Long expansion is completed.

However, Warino did identify one area of concern for city: the roughly $105,000 the city’s Farmers and Fisheries Market has lost since it was opened in 2008 and the roughly $80,000 it’s projected to lose in 2013 alone.

The market was one of the crown jewels in the city’s rehabilitation of Sala Avenue and its historic district.

That transformation has occurred largely dues to state funds steered to Westwego by Sen. John Alario.

Nearly all construction costs for the market were borne by the state, and the facility has received annual payments from the state and Jefferson Parish to pay for its operation and maintenance.

But those funds have never been enough, and the revenues generated at the facility, which hosts festivals, concerts and private events, don’t cover costs either. Now that state funding has dried up thanks to tightening budgets, the market is staring at mounting losses. Butler doesn’t project any financial growth at the market, and Warino said the facility has just become one more cost.

“There is no change that I’m aware of in 2013 that’s going to make the market profitable,” Butler told the council.

He also addressed the idea that Westwego could stop having events to save money.

“If we didn’t do anything at the market and let it sit there, it would still lose $80,000,” he said.

Shaddinger said officials have to decide if they want to continue some of the current practices at the market, like waiving fees for certain groups. Those things cost money but also provide services, he said.

“We have to decide collectively what we want to do,” Shaddinger said. “We have to recognize how it impacts the community as a whole, not just the balance sheet.