Alexandria City Council delays passing budget until next Tuesday to allow more public input

By Bill Sumrall
The Light

Alexandria City Council members Tuesday delayed passage of the city’s new fiscal year budget until a public hearing next week.

Council President Roosevelt Johnson announced the hearing for 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, in the downtown City Hall Council chambers.

The city’s proposed budget for 2010-11 is about $182 million, down from $189 million in the current fiscal year ending this month, according to published reports.

The proposed General Fund budget, which is the city’s operating funds, is $49.9 million, down about $8 million from $57.8 million, due to decreased sales tax revenues and increased spending for health insurance premiums and police and fire pension plans, published reports state.

Johnson said that Council members are “very concerned about how serious this is and how serious this will impact our city for the next year.”

“What’s taking place with this budget will impact us in a massive way that we’ve never been affected before going into the next couple of years,” Johnson said.

The city’s administration sent “this recommended budget” to the City Council for final adoption, Johnson said.

Johnson reminded the audience that many projects citizens see taking place over the next few months will be generated through SPARC.

SPARC stands for Special Planned Activity Redevelopment Corridors and is the city of Alexandria’s largest redevelopment project in its history, a $96 million infrastructure investment project in three separate Cultural Restorative Areas.

Those three CRAs are: (1) Downtown, Riverfront, and Lower Third; (2) North MacArthur Drive and Bolton Avenue; and (3) Masonic Drive and Lee Street.

“The city’s operational budget takes care of the day-to-day operations of the city of Alexandria,” Johnson told the audience.

Council member Myron Lawson chaired the Finance Committee meeting for Everette Hobbs, who was out of town.

Lawson said that he expected each Council member would be “combing the budget” between now and next week for ways to restore proposed funding cuts.
“I intend to go back and work a little bit more closely with the finance director to come up with some solutions,” Lawson said.

Lawson said he hoped to restore cuts proposed for Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs, such as the Boys and Girls Club of Central Louisiana, and for funding school crossing guards.

Earlier, during the public comment period at Tuesday’s regular Council session April 20, representatives from several NGOs addressed the Council on behalf of their respective organizations.

Mark Watson, past president for the Alexandria Mardi Gras Association, said the city budget’s proposed “substantial” cuts means his group would only be able to put on the Sunday krewes parade next year due to insurance and other costs.

“It’s absolutely impossible for us to put on all three parades,” Watson said.

“As funds become available, and it’s our intention, if possible, to do the children’s parade on Saturday morning and, if enough funding become available, either through grants or funding through the city or other sources, then to add the Friday afternoon/evening parade, as the last parade to come back,” Watson said.

Rosa Fields, speaking on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club of Central Louisiana, described 2009 as “a very challenging year” for the organization, adding that “2010 is going to be, what we hope to be, a year of sustainability.”

“I recognize the position that the city and our community as a whole finds itself in with the budget issues and so forth, but I want to just remind everyone about the investment in our children that we all are making,” Fields said.

“I just want to ask you all to consider the amount of funds that we are asking for. I will tell you we plan, as we did last year, to raise a minimum of a third of our budget in fundraisers and asking the community for support,” Fields said.

Fields said the club will also apply for grant funding.

School crossing guards Abraham Celestine and Edward Williams Sr., who wore their reflective uniforms, addressed proposed cuts in funding for their jobs.

“A lot of people when they coming to work … when they hit them four-lanes, they think they’re on I-49,” Celestine said.

“You’d be surprised at the people that I have flagged down and told them to stop or slow down or what not, and I have seen kids run across the road and almost get hit,” Celestine said.

“Sometimes my heart just jumps up in my throat almost because it’d be tragic to see an 18-wheeler run over a 2-year-old, or 4-or 5-  or 6-year-old-kid,” Celestine said.

Williams told the Council he handles some west and north intersection crossings.

“The children, when they’re walking, they don’t pay as much attention to the red light, so I have to be there to guide them … because they’re talking and things, they don’t pay no attention to the light,” Williams said.

“Ever since I can remember, we have always had school guard crossings … we just do the best we can,” Williams said.

Maggie Jarrett, executive director of the Arts Council of Central Louisiana, cited her organization’s accomplishments and programs for the Council.

“Our program this year included bringing two internationally acclaimed performing arts groups to our city, one of them being the Ailey II and the other one being the Harlem Gospel Choir,” Jarrett said.

“We’ve had outstanding attendance at these two events — it was very heart-warming to bring groups of this caliber here to the city of Alexandria,” Jarrett said.

Nearly 900 people attended the Kaminari Taiko drum performance in November at Alexandria Convention Hall, Jarrett added.

“Every dollar that the city invests in the Arts Council we return four dollars in tax revenue. I can assure you this year with our attendance figures that that’s going to be an even greater number,” Jarrett said.

Gwendolyn Y. Elmore, president and executive director of the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.

“Arna Bontemps, Alexandria’s native son, has been recognized as one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century as well as an authority on the Harlem Renaissance,” Elmore said.

Elmore also cited center activities such as the upcoming Arna Bontemps African American Quiz Bowl taking place in May for students in third to 12th grade; the junior writers guild; and an adult writers workshop and recent Jazz on the River.

One resident, Gayle Underwood, complained about what she viewed as proposed cuts involving police and fire public safety services when she alleged $600,000 goes to “a private country club where someone’s membership would be $1,300” plus fees.

“I find this very, very upsetting — we’re cutting all these organizations, we’re cutting our crossing guards,” Underwood said.

Underwood added she didn’t think 1 p.m. next Tuesday is a convenient time for people with day jobs to come to a public hearing on the budget.

Another resident, Houston Rax Jr., requested that an itemized list be mailed to District 3 residents of everything spent there by the city “because we need to educate our people and let them know what’s going on.”

Houston wanted this list to include Special Planned Activity Redevelopment Corridors or SPARC funds spent there as well as proposed budget cuts “so that we can know exactly what’s going on with our money,” he said.

“I would also like to see how many dollars are generated, tax dollars, in District 3,” Houston said, adding he’d also like included Council members’ salaries.
“I mean, we can’t take everything personally,” Houston said, when talking about funding cuts.

Each Council member present gave his response to the proposed budget reductions and to what NGO representatives and others said during the public comment period.

“I thank all of you for what you’ve done for our community and will continue to do. But I guarantee you, as we make the tough decisions, each councilman here is going to go to bat for their districts, go to bat for the city, go to bat for you,” Johnson said.

“Just because you were cut or you will be cut or any service will be cut, that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up on bouncing back and coming back to make our city and the quality of life better,” Johnson said.

Council member Ed Larvadain praised the efforts of the Boys and Girls Club and school crossing guards.

“I’m going to vote for the crossing guards,” Larvadain said, which he estimated was about $90,000 of the budget. “It’s a safety issue,” Larvadain added, noting that “$90,000 is not worth going to a child’s funeral.”

As for the proposed Arts Council cuts, Larvadain said that “art’s life.”

“People can’t just work every day and not have a release mechanism,” Larvadain said. “Folks have to get out and have fun.”

“A city can’t function without arts — look at Austin, look at Chicago. Arts are prevalent in those cities. People want to do something on the weekends,” Larvadain said.

“If you cut those activities, then how can you attract people to come to your city when there’s nothing to do but to work?” Larvadain asked.

Council member Chuck Fowler said it’s not easy to “pass judgment on a budget that’s prepared to be in balance.”

“It’s demanded by the state law and the city charter that we have a balanced budget. I wish that the federal government had to do the same thing,” Fowler said, adding cuts can be restored as sales tax revenues rise.

“Every single organization has great value,” Fowler said, listing those the city has helped in the past.

Fowler responded to Underwood’s questions about the golf course funding.

“It’s the least negatively funded organization in the city,” Fowler said, noting the golf course’s budget is about $800,000 and the course generates around $680,000 while the city subsidizes them some $200,000.

“In comparison with other organizations that are city-owned and city-operated, it’s minuscule in the amount that we fund it,” Fowler said.

Council member Harry Silver clarified that there have been no cuts in city police, fire or sanitation funding. “The only thing we’re eliminating is over-time,” Silver said.

Silver added the city must have a 15 percent reserve for its bonding capacity to avoid impacting future rates, “which could jeopardize the integrity of the entire city.”

Also, Silver warned the city lacks unanticipated contingency funds in case of flooding, hurricane or tornado.

“We dodged a bullet for two years — we didn’t three years ago. We don’t have a dime set aside for that and this is important that we protect all 50,000 people here, so bear that in mind,” Silver said.

However, on a positive note, SPARC money being spent “will translate into improvement of the city, which should generate more people, more jobs, more taxes,” Silver said.

In his remarks, Lawson referred to Underwood’s comment about golf course funding and to cuts proposed for grass-cutting by the city as well as to school crossing guards.

“I pray to God I never live in a city where we adequately fund a golf course but not a Boys and Girls Club. I pray I never live in a city where we manicure the greens for a golf course and let grass grow in other neighborhoods,” Lawson said.

Lawson suggested saving money through such methods as raising the city’s deductible for a reinsurance fund, which lowered its premiums.

Council member Jonathan Goins said, “Right now, I can’t in good conscience vote to approve a budget that neglects so much that’s very dear to my heart.”

Goins said the elderly and children should be taken care of first, referring to cuts made to the Seniors Aging with Grace and Energy program and to the Boys and Girls Club.

Goins urged the city’s administration to “take a look back at the budget” to see whether there are more funds and whether all sources have been exhausted.

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