, Port Arthur, Texas

September 7, 2010

Mowing issue overshadowed by budgetary woes

Mary Meaux
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Discussion over a mowing contract to groom a section of Texas 73 evolved into talk of budget cut theories and shed light on the city of Port Arthur’s financial situation.

One mowing, which also includes weedeating services and trash removal, comes in at about $2,450 for the approximate 118 acres of land between Taylor’s Bayou and Texas 82. Councilmember Martin Flood, a proponent of keeping the grass cutting service, said this equates to about $10 per acre.

City Manager Steve Fitzgibbons said there is currently enough funds for one cutting at the listed price, other than that there is no contract in place for subsequent mowing. The funding would have to come from the city’s revenue fund that already has a projected deficit of at least $1 million.

Flood referred to the mowing as a “one block at a time cut,” alluding to Mayor Deloris “Bobbie” Prince’s project, One Block at a Time, which is aimed at cleaning city streets of trash one block at a time.

Prince worried about spending money on mowing in the upcoming fiscal budget while jobs may be cut in an already stretched to the limit budget.

On the same note, City Manager Steve Fitzgibbons and Assistant City Manager Rebecca Underhill provided councilmembers with an update on the budget process which is scheduled to be adopted in two weeks.

A $24 million in the general fund reserves is a solid number but this wasn’t the case in 1993 when that balance was less than $1 million, Fitzgibbons said. Council at that time dipped into the so-called rainy day fund and the city would have been in dire straights had a hurricane struck 17 years ago.

The 2010-2011 fiscal year budget has changed drastically since Fitzgibbons and Underhill brought the document to council for discussion. At that time there was a $3.1 million deficit and the budget did not include equipment purchases, retiree health insurance funding or non-civil service increases.

City leaders are looking at not only the current budget but future budgets as well in light of hefty health insurance costs and drop in industrial district payments.

Adjustments have been made to the evolving budget, none of which are set in stone, including:

• Elimination of 26 budgeted positions; 16 vacant and 10 filled, for a savings of $1.7 million. This includes reducing the size of the city garage, which currently employs 12. Four of those positions will be moved to public works. Two positions are vacant and the city plans to place the remaining employees elsewhere.

• The inclusion of $2.8 million in grant funds and related expenses in order to perform Ike recovery projects with city crews to generate more than $800,000 to the general fund.

• $1.8 million added to the budget for capital  equipment.

• Changes in the retiree health insurance by adding tiers, thus dropping the city’s Annual Required Contribution from $7 million to $600,000.

• Should the city council award a cost of living adjustment to the non-civil service employees, at the current rate of inflation of 1.3 percent, another $325,000 would be added to the deficit, bringing the total deficit to $1.9 million.

If council adopts a 3 percent COLA, the additional cost of $425,000 would raise the deficit to $2.3 million.

Underhill pointed out that $24 million in reserves includes money that isn’t there — yet.

“We have an outstanding receivable from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) for Rita of $1.8 million and Ike of $3.7 million,” Fitzgibbons said in the memo to the mayor and council. “This money has been expended and we continue to await reimbursement which has been excruciatingly slow. This $5.5 million receivable is included in the fund balances but is not an available, liquid asset. Another hurricane could be financially devastating.”