The case of the $32 fee approaches court

Sep 28th, 2012 | By | Category: Top Story

The parish has hired an outside attorney to represent them in the $32 fee lawsuit filed by Peter Rupp with the injunction hearing scheduled for Friday.

The Executive Finance committee decided it will recommend a 10 percent cut to all departments at the Oct. 2 council meeting. And everyone is trying to figure out their
next move after the injunction hearing.

Administration
“We were forced to do this,” said Parish President David Peralta. “Government is more expensive to operate today than ever before.”

Peralta affirms that non-recurring revenue was designated funding for recurring costs in the parish’s budget, leaving a shortfall.

“When we took over, the budget was already set,” he explained. Peralta said he wished his administration had had a transition period in the weeks between the 2011 election and when he officially took office on January 1.

“We’ve made cutbacks,” Peralta said. They include 67 layoffs, changes to phone and take-home vehicles, even rationing office supplies. Layoffs, he says, hurts not just the former employee, but also his or her departments who must do more with less, and the tax base since now that person is actually collecting unemployment benefits instead of contributing to the parish’s taxbase.

20 Mills
But Peralta is looking forward to the hopeful passage of the 20 mills, which voters will either accept or reject in an up or down vote.

If the new millage does not pass, “the consequences is a seriously scaled back government.”
“These (fire fighters) are our first responders,” said Peralta. But, “if I don’t furlow
the fire department, I’ll have to fire 200 people.”

“You can only ask your employees so much,” said Peralta explaining that departments
already cut to the bone.

Only one place to look for cutbacks

“I’ve already cut all of the other departments,” said Peralta. “We will have to cut
the fire department. We will not only lose jobs, but also protection. That means that
instead of 10-11 fire stations open, now it will be 5 or 6.”
Peralta, focusing more on the millage than the impending court case, also points to a decrease of St. Bernard fire rating and the correlating increase on home owner’s insurance rate. He estimates a two-point decrease could mean an $800-$900 increase after two years.

Court
When it comes to the court case, Peralta has confidence that the council was right to trust the 2009 Attorney General opinion’s assertion that the parish can impose this fee.

“I don’t think it is a tax; it is a vital fee,” said Peralta. “On face value, I feel confident. But when it comes to the courts, it is unpredictable.”

A scheduled injunction hearing, set after The St. Bernard Voice’s press time. If the judge grants an injunction, Peralta said he will have no choice but to act.

“I will layoff the next day,” Peralta said. “What choice to I have? I can’t go into deficit
spending.”

On a personal level, Peralta, a former police officer, said a cut to the fire department
will hurt. There is a “professional respect” between fire fighter and police officers, he
said.

Executive Finance Committee
The Executive Finance Committee recommended a resolution for introduction at the October 2 council meeting that they believe, if passed will bridge some of the gap of the $1.5 million shortfall for the 2012 budget.

The resolution requests that the administration make an additional 10 percent in budget cuts from the Revised 2012 Budget and submit it back to the EFC for review by October 7. The cuts can be personnel, non-personnel and furlough.

A discussion of the $32 fee was on the agenda, but the EFC removed the item due to pending litigation.

“We’re making the cuts regardless of the fee,” said EFC Chairman Richie Lewis. “The 10 percent of cuts is the simplest way we can get it equal across the board, and it gives the
administration the flexibility to make cuts where ever he sees fit.”

The August Sales Tax numbers were also discussed and according to Beverly Gariepy, Acting Director of Finance, although they follow no clear pattern, the amounts collected this summer have been approaching the 2011 levels.

“We’re seeing $250,000 more in ad valorem for 2012 than we expected,” said Gariepy. As far as where she anticipates the 10 percent in cuts could come from, Gariepy
said that “professional services coming out of the General Fund is really what sticks out
to me.”
“Sales tax are starting to show signs of improvement, but there’s really no pattern to that, especially with Isaac, but if they stay on that upward trend and these 10 percent in cuts are made, we might not have as big a problem as we initially thought.” said Councilman Casey Hunnicutt.

However, the EFC stresses due to an influx of purchases with food stamps from Hurricane Isaac, sales tax numbers for September could be low.

On the lawyer selection:
“We looked at it as an emergency because we’re being sued, our legal team is extremely
busy with other litigation and couldn’t handle it, so we had to hire outside council to begin preparing for the hearing as soon as possible,” explained Hunnicutt. “Because the fee is tied to the Fire Department, whose existence affects the health and safety of residents, we looked at it [the fee going away] as an emergency.”

The council hired attorney Leonard Levenson by emergency ordinance last Friday.

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