Jefferson budget OK’d; radio system debated

After a month of negotiations and tweaking, the Jefferson Parish Council approved its 2013 budget Wednesday, although not without some debate about the creation of a new radio system and radio tower.

Council members and Parish President John Young’s administration have been discussing the budget since Young presented it in November. The document projects about $553.5 million in revenues for the parish and $562.4 million in expenditures.

The final document shows that Young’s administration has compromised on many of the changes requested by the council, including adding $90,000 for the West Bank Major Crimes Taskforce, removing $100,000 in funding for renovations to the parish’s television studio and eliminating requirements that the parish’s volunteer fire departments contribute to a backup radio system. All of those changes had been requested by the council along with several other clarifications on spending.

However, the radio system remained a sticking point for some council members. In fact, $1.5 million in funding for that item was removed from the budget, and the council expressed concern about $1.2 million dedicated to the construction of a new radio tower.

The council expects to resume discussions on those issues next month.

Council Chairman Elton Lagasse said he was troubled that the East Bank Consolidated Fire District was being asked to spend $1.5 million on the radio program in addition to payments towards the construction of a new radio tower. Lagasse was particularly perturbed that the district could find that much money for radios, but struggled to find $500,000 for a new station recently. He said the administration hasn’t provided enough information to the council.

“No one discussed this with us.” Lagasse “I’m not voting for it today.”

The radio system sparked an angry back and forth between Young’s administration and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand in November after Normand questioned the need for the parish’s West Bank fire departments to tie into that system considering they already use the same system as the Sheriff’s Office. Officials also noted that the primary user of the system is the parish Public Works Department, not firefighters.

Chief Operating Officer Christopher Cox told the council that the radio system and radio tower are separate issues.

The tower holds antennas for several local agencies, and Young noted that the parish has a report that says the current tower is dangerously unstable. That report was generated prior to Young’s tenure. Cox said that since the parish is aware of problems with the tower, it needs to be corrected now.

“If the tower falls down and causes damage, we’re on notice,” Cox said.

Col. David Dysart, the parish’s emergency management director, noted that if the council delays too long on the tower project, it could lose about $330,000 in grant money for the project. The deadline for that grant is in April.

Councilman Chris Roberts said he understands the deadline, but he thinks a final decision on the projects can wait. Roberts did note that since the tower is a capital project, the council could approve its funding now and still have a chance to discuss any final contract.

He also suggested that parish officials examine placing the parish’s antenna equipment on existing parish water towers instead of building a new structure.