Council adopts amended budget

Published 10:55 am Wednesday, November 28, 2012

By Richard Meek

The Daily News

One financial crisis averted, one more budget riddle to solve for Washington Parish officials.

The Parish Council on Monday night adopted an amended budget for 2012 that will keep the courthouse doors open and employees on the job. But only by the slimmest of margins.

The amended budget calls for the parish to end 2012 with a balance of $2,188.22 in the general fund, thus avoiding a potential violation of state law. Louisiana prohibits any parish from ending the year with a deficit in the general fund, and parish officials have been struggling to find the funds to cover what was at one time projected to be a $250,000 deficit by Dec. 31.

“I’m relieved but also still worry about having to dip into reserves,” Parish President Richard Thomas said following the meeting. “That stays on your mind. If anything were to happen we would really be in trouble as far as our general fund is concerned.”

Savvy number crunching by parish finance director Donna Alonzo played a significant role in solving the budget dilemma, at least for this year, Thomas said. Alonzo used a series of measures to balance the budget, including transferring $50,000 from the sales tax fund into the general fund, another $125,000 transfer from a landfill sales tax fund that predated 2002, and moving an additional $125,000 from a FEMA account set up post-Hurricane Katrina.

Those transfers, along with clamping down on expenses, will help the parish end the year in the black, officials said.

The parish should end the year with projected expenses of $3.526 million in the general fund. Overall, the parish will incur approximately $12.6 million in expenses, with healthy ending balances in most of the other accounts.

The general fund is the parish’s operating fund, and it is from that fund where the expenses of the subagencies, including the offices of sheriff, assessor and clerk of court as well as the judicial system, are paid.

State law, backed up by a court case involving Washington Parish and District Attorney Walter Reed, mandates each parish pay the “fair and reasonable” expenses of each agency.

“As everybody knows, (mandated expenses) are really what is beginning to hurt,” Thomas said. “You can understand being an agency you want the full amount of money you should be receiving. That’s kind of a no-brainer to people who run their agency. We have a lot of subagencies under us that the parish would not run without these agencies.”

Thomas, as he has for the past few months, warned the 2013 budget will be skimpy, at least until voters go to the polls April 6 to decide the fate of a proposed .33-cent sales tax increase that would generate an estimated $1.4 million annually. If passed, the parish should start receiving the money in August.

“The general fund budget is going to be very, very tight,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, it will be like that until August and that is only if (the tax increase) passes. Hopefully, it will get better then.”

But Thomas said he and Alonzo would err on the side of caution when preparing the new budget and not take into consideration any potential monies from approval of the tax.

“We can’t budget for something we don’t have,” he said. “No way you can. We’ve met with the subagencies and told them it’s going to be very tight. I think they’re realizing that.”

When asked about the potential effect of voters nixing the tax, Thomas said he hasn’t “put that thought in but we would be in terrible condition.”

“I think most of the people in the parish really understand that is a must. It’s something we have to have.”

Alonzo said the proposed budget will be ready by the council’s Dec. 3 meeting and a public hearing will be held during the Dec. 17 meeting. Each of the December meetings has been pushed up by one week because of the Christmas holidays and to give the council adequate time to adopt the 2013 budget.

On Dec. 3, when the budget will be introduced, the meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., one hour later than its usual time.

On Dec. 17, the meeting will commence at the customary time of 6 p.m.