PEARL RIVER, La. - Next year's proposed budget gives the town of Pearl River almost $3 million to work with. That's $31,000 less than the town reported having in July, when a mid-year revision was made to this year's budget.
Town leaders have said lower sales taxes, court fines and building permits are part of the decline and the reason behind several cuts for next year, including the suggestion to end take-home cars for police officers.
But our review of the budget shows several questionable expenses still on the books, including at least three miscellaneous funds, one for $10,000 in the administration budget. There's also $10,000 set aside for the town playground, named after the mayor, also in the administration's budget. All are unchanged from 2013 to 2014.
Then there's Mayor James Lavigne's transportation. He receives $1,000 a year in a car allowance, on top of driving a city-owned vehicle. It's a 2013 GMC Terrain, purchased in March of this year, for more than $37,000, but you won't find anything about the purchase in the budget.
"I don't know. I think when I buy mine, I buy some out of all, I take some money out of all the departments because I run them all,” said Lavigne.
We checked with other mayors in St. Tammany Parish about their transportation. Both mayors in Mandeville and Slidell drive their personal vehicles.
Donald Villere in Mandeville gets an $800 to $900 a month car allowance, while Freddy Drennan in Slidell gets a $550 allowance. Mayor Mike Cooper in Covington drives a 2010 city-owned vehicle, and does not receive an allowance. He is also taxed on personal mileage in the vehicle. Lavigne in Pearl River says he'd consider a change.
“Hell, if they want to do that on mine, I don't care. I'd ride a bicycle to work and back," he said. When asked if the mayor would suggest that to the aldermen, he said, “If they think it'll save money, I'll do it. Like I said, I've cut my budget to the bone to help another administration, ya know, so why the hell should I cut anymore? That's my theory."
Alderwoman Kat Walsh said it's not the first time there's been questions about the town's spending.
"I can tell you that there are some expenditures that have been made with regards to the town that has not come up before the council,” she said, “There has been a state audit or two that has caught those discrepancies."
Some say the town needs to be more fair and frugal, especially in a financial crunch.
"If we can find funds in other departments, and cut elsewhere, that to me would be the more logic thing to do, instead of cutting officers in the vehicles too," said Pearl River Fraternal Order of Police #53 President JJ. Jennings.
Walsh said, "If it came down to it, I would be the number one to say return that, and get rid of anything else we can and cut back anywhere else we can."
An issue was found in last year's audit of the town, where budget entries had to be adjusted to reflect the town's actual balance. Auditors recommended the town communicate its monthly financial statements to its CPA firm so the misstatements don't continue to cause problems. The town responded it would follow the recommendation.