Bogalusa deficit addressed during council meeting

Published 3:21 pm Friday, April 4, 2014

During the first Bogalusa City Council meeting of every month the supervisors offer an update on what’s been done in their departments over the past month and what’s currently in the works. This week that, and questions from the public, gave City Administrator Jerry Bailey, who is in charge of finances, an opportunity to explain how a deficit of more than half a million dollars was discovered last month during the finalization of the 2013 municipal audit.

Bailey shouldered the responsibility, but described a situation in which the city was initially ahead of the problem, but was foiled in its attempts to maintain control.

He said the city had called a company about purchasing a new computer system last February. When asked about a timeline for getting the system up and running, he was told that installation could take place in November, but that it would not be possible to get the system online until Jan. 1, 2014.

“That made sense to me,” Bailey said. “It would give us time to make the transition.”

But three months later, on May 31, the old system crashed.

On June 3, when the crash was discovered, the city called the old computer vendor and was told the payroll system was repaired, but that the financial reporting system was “gone.”

“We lost the ability to input data and keep up with it,” Bailey said. “We couldn’t make projections.”

He then called the new computer company and asked for suggestions about a system the city could use until the new one would be usable, and that would enable it to transfer data to the new system in January.

The timeline of action shows fast work delayed by procedural requirements.

Baily quickly got an emergency ordinance approved by the city council, but was told by the attorney general that a computer crash is not an emergency and that he would have to put the project out for bid. He advertised for proposals starting June 19, then sought and gained approval for financing.

The proposals were opened on July 10, and a contract was signed two weeks later. The prep work began on August 2, and the city started the process of putting the interim system in place and training personnel in early September, Bailey said.

“It was my hope that when we got the data input we would be able to report the financial situation of the city,” he said.

But the process that Bailey expected to be done by the end of October was not completed until January.

“You can blame me for putting it off because I was hoping to get it done through the system rather than to manually pull expenditures and receipts,” he said. “But I did manage to get the (deficit) numbers that have been reported in the newspaper from the best information available, and I turned them over to the auditor.”

Bailey said that no records have been lost, but because the city lost the ability to call the information through the computer system the process took longer.

When asked by Terry “Foots” Quinn if the city was considering litigation against the company responsible for “the backup system that didn’t work like it was supposed to,” Bailey said, “We are looking into it.”

Another concern expressed by members of the public was the welfare of the 13 people who were laid off due to the financial emergency.

Personnel Director Sandy Bloom was the first to address that subject.

“It’s been a difficult two or three weeks for our department heads and staff,” she said. “Laying people off is not for sissies. Each one left a hole.”

And the remaining employees must take on additional responsibilities to fill those holes, she said.

The layoffs were not decided in a cavalier way, and they included more staff members than “rank and file” employees, Bloom said

“It’s all devastating to the individuals and to the departments,” she said.

Since 80 percent of the city’s budget goes toward salaries that was the necessary place to start trying to stem the bleeding, but the city needs people to cut grass, fight fires and deter crime, Bloom said.

“We have to be a 21st Century city to compete for visitors, tourists, shoppers, businesses and residents,” she said.

“That’s done through people.

“We are looking at everything we can do, how to best get the job done. We will continue to try to get agenda items done with the people we have in order to stay competitive.”

Mayor Charles Mizell said the layoffs were not a matter of throwing darts at a dartboard, but were part of a reorganization that the city had been planning and “easing into” for about a year. The easing might have been suddenly cut short, but the results were well thought out.

Another change was sudden, he said.

“There was some knee-jerk (reaction),” Mizell said. “I stopped overtime.

“Decisions have to be made here. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.

“We hit a bump in the road, but this is not the first bump we’ve had in this city. We aren’t scared to work. We’re going to do the job, to meet the challenge. Everything we know is on the table (for the auditors), and it looks like our numbers are going to be close.”

Bailey said he expects to have “concrete numbers” in a week or two and that his office could issue a current financial status report by next week.

He said the auditors have indicated that they are “feeling really good” about the new computer system.

Mizell pointed out that most of the large projects planned for or already under way in Bogalusa are funded by grants, and he said the city’s budget status would be known and controlled.

“We are going to continue to run the city more efficiently,” Mizell said. “I’m not going to deny the problems. And we’ll have more as long as we make decisions.”

But the positive changes in Bogalusa were evident last weekend in the many visitors and happy business owners at the Rendezvous on the Road Friday and the big crowd of families from throughout Louisiana and beyond who came to town for the rodeo on Saturday, he said.

Mizell thanked the many volunteers who have been energized to make those and other events happen to put Bogalusa in the spotlight, and he vowed to stay the course.

Bloom also alluded to the changes.

“We’ll try to act in an appropriate and responsible manner, yet still keep alive the spark that has been lit in Bogalusa,” she said.