Trying to fix a budget gap over the next four months, the Bayou La Batre City Council took several drastic steps to cut spending and increase revenue Thursday night — steps including increased taxes, employee furloughs and spending cuts to city departments.
Mayor Annette Johnson told city employees at the meeting that Bayou la Batre has a little more than $500 in its general fund to meet its next $96,000 payroll. As a result, the council approved one furlough day each month over the next 12 months for the city’s 50 employees.
Officials said the furloughs could save the city $6,701.10 in salary costs each month, or more than $80,000 per year, but the motion simply authorized the city to use those days and does not guarantee the hours will be cut. Johnson said the city’s only going to use the days “it must,” if the measure is approved by the Mobile County Personnel Board.
After a vote of the council, employees will also being losing overtime or “holiday” pay for work performed on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Good Friday — a benefit added by the administration of former Mayor Brett Dungan in 2013. Three contract workers were also terminated by the city tonight. Those positions were not specified, but Johnson said the move would save an additional $3,000 per month.
Council members said they took no joy in making the decisions and had opted to reduce hours and holiday pay only to avoid permanent layoffs, which city officials still haven’t ruled out.
“It’s very difficult, and I’ll tell you why. I’m related to a lot of these folks here, and I know the hardships they’re going to face,” Johnson told reporters after the meeting. “But yet again, I still believe that these employees have the right to know ahead of time what our problems have been, what they are and how we can resolve them.
“If at any given time they choose to seek employment in a more secure situation I fully understand that. With this situation being what it is, I would encourage them to do what is best for their families.”
Corrine Busby, an office assistant and court clerk for the city, said she and other city employees “didn’t mind the furloughs” because they understood why they were necessary, but she cautioned cutting pay around the holiday may cause budget problems for families right before Christmas.
“I haven’t heard one of you say, ‘let’s cut our own pay,’ but you’re taking out of the working man,” she said. “Would y’all consider that?”
Only two of the councilors addressed the question — Johnson and the council’s most senior member, Ida Mae Coleman. Johnson said “other people see much more of (her) money than she does,” adding that she tries to spend the majority of her city salary within the community.
Coleman added to that sentiment saying that council members are there to help the people.
“By the time you go do service for this and go do service for that, you don’t have any money,” Coleman said. “That’s part of our job — to help the people, and yes I’m unemployed, but I give my share back to the people.”
Helping to field the question, city attorney Jay Ross said a state statute prevents a sitting council members from having their salary changed while they hold office, and said the only way a council member could give up part of their salary would through donations after the fact.
That council instructed Ross to explore that matter further, saying it was something to consider.
Johnson told Lagniappe the city’s last payroll was met almost entirely with money from a recent $352,000 settlement the city reached with BP for its damages in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, after attorneys fees, the city only saw about $296,000, and the bulk of that went to a $185,000 bond payment — one of the last on a multi-million debt the city accrued from a dredging project in 1996.
The city tried and failed to restructure that debt for the same reason it was unable to obtain additional lines of credit, which Johnson attributed to the city’s lack of up-to-date audit reports. Defaulting on or delaying the bond payment would have “tremendously damaged the city’s credit,” according to Johnson, which is why the city moved forward with using the entirety of the BP settlement it has waited on since 2010.
“That cash flow would been very useful around here, but we have have to protect the longevity of the city,” Johnson said. “it would have take four to five years to recovery from that. We will move forward, and we will do the very best we can.”
Though the possibility of furloughs made state news, it was only one of numerous cuts the council approved on Thursday. The council also voted to increase cigarette taxes by 3 cents, which will bring the current tax to 9 cents per pack. In addition, other taxes were considered and are currently being explored by the city’s attorney.
Those potential new taxes include a “steel tax” on industries that utilize and disrupt the city’s drawbridge, a “splash tax” on vessels launched into the bayou similar to ones that exist in ports of Louisiana and even an “occupational tax,” which, if approved, would assess a small tax to people that work in Bayou la Batre but live outside the city limits.
City departments also sacrificed city-paid cell phones, additional phone and fax lines and even vehicles, which were declared as surplus in preparation to the sell them off. One vehicle is a $168,000 ladder truck the city purchased for the Bayou la Batre Fire Department only last year — a purchase that was touted by Dungan on more than one occasion.
Fire Chief John Wiggins said that truck is currently valued at roughly the same price, but exactly what its could net the city won’t be known until it’s sold.
The council also discussed selling a piece of city property on Shine Road to the Bayou La Batre Utilities Board. According to Ross, who also advises the board, a tentative purchase price has been set at approximately $17,000.
The Utilities Board intends to install a new well there, according to Ross, which could help with water pressure issues at Anna F. Booth Elementary School that caused a controversy in the city earlier in the year.
The sale is not finalized, but Johnson said the Utilities Board was doing “doing everything possible to make this work for our city,” which is a sharp contrast from its relationship with city during Dungan’s administration.
This article was originally posted with an inaccurate headline. We regret the error.
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