KENNER, La. -- The Mardi Gras Museum in Rivertown, once filled with colorful artifacts, is now shuttered. It's another Kenner attraction fallen to budget cuts.
With a $1.5 million deficit, Kenner is scaling back. It's closed attractions, laid off roughly 20 employees and cut over 120 positions.
"We have cut, cut and cut and we keep cutting," said Mayor Mike Yenni.
But one area that continues to grow is Kenner's car allowance program. Nearly 40 select city employees rake in hundreds of dollars in extra cash each month, regardless of miles, for using their personal car. It's an apparent violation of the city's charter that costs taxpayers nearly $100,000 a year.
"Number one, I think it's the best kept secret in town," said former Kenner employee Kathy DuTreil. "Number two, there's no way they're driving that many miles for work."
As a former grant writer, DuTreil would frequently drive out of town for work. She said the city of Kenner reimbursed her according to thorough records that listed mileage and reasons for traveling.
"Even as much driving as I did, all they did was reimburse me $20, $30, maybe $40," said DuTreil.
She believes there's no way the employees who receive a car allowance, some with desk jobs, are driving enough miles to warrant thousands in extra cash each year.
"I didn't see these people come and go other than to lunch," said DuTreil.
When you don't count the airport, Kenner is about 11 square miles. Critics of the car "bonuses" said that makes it very difficult for employees to rack up enough miles to justify the payments.
The city's charter bars employees from getting extra pay or benefits unless a special ordinance was passed by the city council. An attorney general opinion called Kenner's former executive pay plan illegal for that reason. The car allowances are no exception, said an attorney with Citizens for a Better Kenner.
"They're illegal. They're illegal because they were never posed to the City Council, and never properly vetted to the public. It's simple, they're illegal," said attorney Arita Bohanan.
But Yenni said the car allowances are more than acceptable; they're necessary.
"I believe that's vital to being able to let these directors do what they have to do for the city. I believe it's fair; I believe it's the right thing to do to compensate them," said Yenni. "Those are the directors of departments. They do leave their offices besides going home and going to lunch, they do go to other meetings in other departments."
Kenner began the allowance program when it got rid of dozens of take-home vehicles. Yenni said the allowances are a cost-saving measure, and defends the decision not to reimburse by miles.
"We can go to that, then that gets into a time clause, where people, instead of figuring out the main things they're doing, are sitting there trying to figure out mileage, sitting there trying to how far they've gone," said Yenni.
Council members voted in 2007 to approve their $500 a month car allowance. The vote brings it up to par with rules in the city charter.
Now one council member promises to look into those allowances that haven't been voted on in the public arena.
"When it comes down to this budget that's coming up, we're going to take a very close look at that," said Councilman Kent Denapolis. "If there's some house cleaning to do, we're going to do some house cleaning."
Meanwhile, DuTreil hopes a city hurting for cash will take a hard look at the funds now going toward employees' cars and use it to keep Kenner's amenities alive.
"Kenner's hurting for money, and having just come back from two trips out of town, I'm embarrassed now to live in Kenner," said DuTreil. "I get off that plane and I almost want to cry."