Parish finds way to balance budget

Published 7:16 am Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Richard Meek

The Daily News

Crafty financial juggling by Washington Parish Finance Director Donna Alonzo should allow the parish to finish the year with a balanced budget but officials maintain difficult challenges remain, including a potential freezing of expenditures for all agencies possible in December.

During a meeting of the Finance Committee Monday afternoon, Alonzo told Parish Council members she was able to transfer funds from three accounts to help offset the $250,000 deficit that has been projected for the end of the year. State law prohibits any parish from ending the year with a deficit in its general fund.

Alonzo said she was able to transfer $50,000 from the general sales tax fund into the general fund. Additionally, she transferred $125,000 from a landfill sales tax fund that pre-dated 2002, which dwindled the balance to $48,000.

She also moved another $125,000 into the general fund from a FEMA account set up post-Hurricane Katrina, but the balance in the FEMA account must remain at least $500,00 because that’s the amount the parish may eventually be required to reimburse the federal agency.

“It’s not a restricted fund, just a fund to capture our expenditures (for post-Katrina cleanup),” Alonzo said.

The transfer of funds has officials cautiously optimistic about finishing the year with a balance of $2,188.22, thereby satisfying state requirements but leaving little room for error or a cushion should an emergency arise.

“This $2,180 could go off in a matter of a day,” Finance Committee chairman Ken Wheat warned. “That’s all it takes to throw it off.

“It’s still quite a challenge in keeping this amended (budget) intact.”

“It’s been a struggle and we were uncertain as to what we were going to do,” he added. “There were a lot of measures we were looking at but it looks like somehow, someway, we balanced it for 2012. That’s about as close as I can recall in a long, long time.”

Alonzo cautioned of a potential spending freeze, saying the parish “will need” it (freeze) in December to balance the general fund. Various parish agencies submit their bills to the parish, which, by state law, is mandated to pay those expenses.

Alonzo said the spending freeze would not include salaries, and payroll would not be interrupted.

“It will be a day-to-day guess to determine if we have a freeze,” Wheat said. “Hopefully the cooperation (from agencies) will be there.”

Alonzo said she will monitor the revenues and expenses daily to determine if a freeze is required.

“It’s going to be a tight, tight December,” Parish President Richard Thomas said.

Overall, according to the amended budget, the general fund, which operates as the parish checkbook, is showing revenues of $2.2 million and expenses of $3.5 million. The fund began the year with a balance of $210,000.

The biggest budget buster was District Attorney Walter’s Reed office, which came in nearly $273,000 over projected expenses. The office had a budget of $220,100 but expenses are estimated to be $493,050, a difference of nearly $273,000.

Changes in the accounting procedure explain much of the deficit, officials said. For many years Reed submitted an operating budget that was adopted by the council but also had a gentleman’s agreement with the parish that his office would reimburse the parish for additional personnel he said was required. The reimbursement was listed as an account receivable and officials said that worked until several years ago, when Reed stopped paying the reimbursement of nearly $29,000 a month.

Although his office has started repaying the parish, the total has dropped to about $16,000 a month, leaving the parish to cover the shortfall. Through a spokesman, Reed has previously sidestepped questions about the gentleman’s agreement with the parish, saying only the DA’s office has helped pay some of the expenses in the past.

In the amended budget, Alonzo, the total expenses of the DA’s office are listed by the parish for the first time.

She also has changed the budget to show the breakdown of reimbursements and expenses of the 22nd Judicial District, thereby giving the public a clearer picture of parish finances.

“It’s the first time in the history of our accounting our mandated expenses have been so itemized,” Wheat said. “It will help in a number of ways.”

The council is expected to adopt the amended budget at its next meeting on Nov. 26 at 6 p.m.