Kenner Needs To Cut Spending First Before Doubling Taxes

ClickJefferson.com Publisher Walt Bennetti has been an outspoken critic of Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni’s plan to double Kenner Property Taxes. He is a founding member of Citizens for a Better Kenner, has attended many of the forums and meetings that the Mayor has held regarding the tax proposal and has spoken in opposition at two of the forums.

Kenner voters will have an opportunity on tomorrow to vote For or Against Mayor Yenni’s proposal to Double Property Taxes in Kenner. The Mayor says these new taxes are needed to support public safety in Kenner. I say, not so fast Mr. Mayor.

The taxes on the ballot Saturday include 3 new taxes, 2 renewals with increases and 1 straight renewal for Sewerage. The taxes will generate approximately $8.5 Million annually in new tax revenue for the city, including an additional $5.4 Million in new tax revenue for the Kenner Police Department, and an additional $2.7 Million in new tax revenue for the Kenner Fire Department. It would also raise an additional $350,000 for garbage collection every year for the next 10 years.

$8.5 Million in NEW TAX REVENUE out of your pockets. After increasing sewerage fees by 145%, the highest increase in Kenner’s history, can residents and business owners that are already hurting from the economic downturn afford having $8.5 Million less in their checkbooks? People everywhere are cutting back. Shouldn’t the City of Kenner cut back?

As I’ve said for months it is my opinion that the size of Kenner City Government is too large and there is fat that could be cut from both the City of Kenner and the KPD. Will cutting spending result in $8.5 Million in cuts? Of course not, but the City doesn’t need an additional $8.5 Million to operate and KPD certainly doesn’t need an additional $5.4 Million to continue operating either.

Proposition 1 is an 8 Mill new tax for the Kenner Police Department. The money will be used to fund operations and provide salaries and benefits to KPD employees, along with operating and maintaining police stations (although Kenner only has 1 police station), city jails (again Kenner only has 1 jail), police department buildings (what other buildings does KPD have besides the police station and the jail?), and maintaining and operating police vehicles and equipment.

Despite the fact that there is another new tax (Proposition 2) expressly for Police Department Buildings and Equipment, Proposition 1 covers many of the same points.

The Kenner Police Department receives 24% of the City’s total funding. Yes, it does get less when sales tax and casino revenue is lower, but it also gets more money when the city is flush with revenue as we were after Katrina. Why didn’t the KPD invest more then in new vehicles, buildings and equipment when it had excess funds? In addition, the Kenner City Council, to its credit, has always fully-funded whatever budget Chief Caraway has presented.

Proposition 2 is a 4 Mill new tax for the Kenner Police Department for acquiring, constructing and improving police stations, city jails and other police department buildings. Again, as discussed above, the KPD has 1 police station not several (as they do in Lake Charles a city that the Mayor and Chief constantly compare Kenner to) and 1 jail. Both are already built. Do we need a bigger Police Station and Jail in Kenner when all of our Felony arrests are sent to Jefferson Parish anyway?

If 1 Mill generates approximately $450,000 per year in taxes, and the KPD already gets 24% of the city’s total funding, do we really need to add another $1.8 Million annually to the KPD budget for buildings when our Police Station is beautiful and our jail is in good shape?

Does KPD need money for new vehicles? Of course. But, if a new Police car costs $30,000, the $1.8 Million generated annually by this new tax will buy 60 new Police cars every year for 10 years. That‘s a lot of new cars when there are only about 160 KPD Police Officers.

The Kenner PD is already funded at a level that is comparable to other cities. Yes, the KPD funds a 911 call center and a jail and Lake Charles doesn’t. However, Lake Charles has multiple police stations that KPD doesn’t and covers 40 square miles while KPD patrols 11, so, obviously Lake Charles PD has higher fuel and building maintenance costs than KPD.

According to City-Data, the average pay in 2007 for a KPD Officer was $51,692. The average pay for a Lake Charles PD Officer in 2007 was $38,030. In Gretna, it was $47,130. In Houma, it was $36,387. In Harahan, it was $29,598.

My point isn’t to say that KPD Officers are over or under-paid. I believe that all Police Officers and Fire Fighters are underpaid. While street-level and newer Police Officers may be underpaid in Kenner, clearly, the Department is not underpaid.

I have said from the beginning that we must equip our street-level KPD officers with the best equipment possible and pay them at a rate that is comparable with other area departments. I’ve also said that there is still waste in the KPD budget. Yes, Chief Caraway has taken some steps but there is still room to cut. There are still civilian take-home cars used by KPD employees. These are unmarked cars and serve no purpose to the residents of Kenner.

Why should residents of Kenner pay for the cost, gas, maintenance and insurance of a civilian KPD employee’s take-home vehicle? The Federal government doesn’t allow you to deduct the cost of your mileage commuting to and from work. Why should Kenner taxpayers pay for an employee to commute to and from work?

In addition, the Kenner City Council is working with the Jefferson Parish Council to increase the artificially low amount that Kenner receives from JP for the 911 tax on phone lines. If the Council is able to receive more funding for the 911 Call Center, this will also lower the amount of money that KPD needs from the City’s General Fund.

Proposition 3 is a straight renewal for the Sewerage Department operations.

Proposition 4 is a renewal and increase for Garbage Disposal. While costs for garbage and transportation have increased, I would prefer if the city offered additional options. Perhaps some neighborhoods could opt for 1 day per week collections instead of 2 and pay a lower service fee. If neighborhoods want to continue twice weekly garbage collection, they could pay the higher fee without burdening all of Kenner with an unnecessary service. The increase will generate approximately $350,000 in new tax revenue annually.

Proposition 5 is the renewal and increase for the Kenner Fire Department. The Kenner Fire Department has been underfunded for years. However, the citizens of Kenner cannot rectify years of neglect in one day. The increase is estimated to raise approximately $1.8 Million annually in new tax revenue for KFD.

I believe that there is money within the current city budget to properly equip and support the Kenner Fire Department. If Mayor Yenni would consolidate city government and reduce the number of city departments and Directors and Assistant Directors, the city could save over $600,000 in salaries and benefits from this alone. If that money were dedicated to the Kenner Fire Department, the department could have 4-men on a truck or purchase a new truck every year without expecting more money from citizens.

Is $600,000 enough for KFD? Absolutely not, but it’s a start and, if dedicated, it could be $6 Million over the course of 10 years.

In addition, in 2012 the city can reapply for the $1.6 Million SAFER Grant former Mayor Muniz and then-CAO Yenni returned to the Federal Government. If approved, this will allow the KFD to have 4-men on a truck without using tax money from Kenner residents.

Proposition 6 is a new 2 Mill tax for Kenner Fire Department equipment and buildings. This will raise $900,000 per year, $9 Million over 10 years, for the KFD. Some of this will be used to purchase new fire trucks along with an aerial truck.

As mentioned above, if the city of Kenner would consolidate and dedicate the savings to KFD, the city could purchase new fire trucks and the aerial truck. In addition, since the city returned the money for the SAFER Grant, that disqualified the KFD from receiving additional Federal grants for equipment. The city had applied for a grant for the aerial truck in 2006. Since we rejected the SAFER Grant, we were unable to receive a 100% grant for the aerial truck. Again, in my opinion, this was a poor decision by our then Mayor and CAO.

If former Mayor Muniz and then CAO Yenni had made better decisions, the City of Kenner could have had 4-men on a truck and a new aerial truck paid for by Federal dollars in 2006. This would have improved safety for KFD Fire Fighters and, possibly, improved Kenner’s fire rating years ago, resulting in insurance savings for home owners. Now you are being asked to bare the entire brunt of these costs when the city can reapply next year at no cost to Kenner residents. If we’ve waited over 4 years, isn’t it prudent to wait a couple of more months and try to secure Federal dollars first?

As I’ve said several times, KFD has been woefully underfunded for years, through several Mayors. Their funding and equipment issues are not new and some issues should be addressed immediately. However, now is not the time for “Wish List” of every possible piece of equipment and building that the Fire Department wants. Now we need to do what is absolutely necessary to maintain the department. Putting 4-men on a truck is important and, I think, necessary. Purchasing an aerial truck would be nice, but I think we should replace the oldest fire truck first.

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“81 Unfilled Positions“

This is one of my favorites Yenni-isms. Mayor Yenni repeatedly claims that he has cut 81 positions in Kenner City Government. While the Mayor never says that he fired or laid off 81 city employees, the reality is that Mayor Yenni had cut just 6 positions from July 1, 2010 – January 31, 2011. The 6 positions had combined salaries of $126,520, or less than the cost of 1 Department Director and Assistant Director.

Again, it’s about priorities. While it may be nice for Mayor Yenni to say that he’s cut jobs, when they are the jobs of Museum Hosts at Rivertown and Secretaries, it’s disingenuous to say that the Mayor has made any real cuts when Mayor Yenni hasn’t cut highly-paid Directors and Assistant Directors. It’s also extremely misleading to continue to imply that he’s eliminated 81 positions. While I don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs, I do want government run more efficiently.

According to the Kenner City Charter revised in 2008, there are 8 specified departments (Legal, Finance, Community Services, Personnel, Planning, Public Works, Police and Fire). There are now 13 departments (the above 8 plus Recreation, Community Development, Purchasing, Code Enforcement, Civil Service) plus 3 sub-departments (Information Technology, KTV and the Mayor’s Office).

In 2006, the year Mayor Muniz and CAO Yenni took the reins, Kenner had 696 full-time equivalent employees. In 2010, there were 739 full-time equivalent employees.

The largest increase in City of Kenner personnel from 2006-2010 has been in Culture and Recreation, increasing 29% and a whopping 67% from 2005 (before Muniz/Yenni). Clearly Mayor Muniz and then CAO Yenni did not subscribe to Mayor Yenni’s current mantra of “Government 101 – fund Public Safety and Public Works first”.

Households and Government across America are cutting back and doing more with less. I think Kenner should cut spending first, and then, after every possible cut has been made, consider increasing taxes. Until the citizens of Kenner see the Mayor consolidating, eliminating, and cutting, these new taxes should not be approved.

Mayor Yenni says that he’s giving citizens a choice. But, the only choice that he’s really giving citizens is vote for all these taxes or he’s going to cut services. Why not hold public meetings and town halls and get input from the citizens? Why not let citizens have a real voice in the government that they want and the services that they need from the City of Kenner? Shouldn’t that have been the first step before seeking to Double Property Taxes?

“Kenner’s A Dying City”

Before people start throwing rocks at me, Mayor Yenni said “Kenner’s a dying city.” While it’s true that our population is in decline and we have an aging sewerage system, Kenner is not dying.

If Kenner were dying, would Target build a new store at Esplanade Mall? Would Macy’s have reopened? Would we be getting a new Multiplex Theatre? No, No, and No.

Besides the obvious misinformation, how does it help encourage residents and business owners to move to and remain in Kenner when our own Mayor calls Kenner “A Dying City”?

“Even if all the taxes are approved, Kenner will pay less than other cities.”

What’s wrong with us paying less taxes now? I don’t care about taxes in Bossier City, St. Tammany Parish, or other cities. I live in Kenner.

If Kenner is “A Dying City” as the Mayor claims, our lower taxes could be something that helps revive the city and bring new residents and businesses to Kenner. Paying almost the same amount as Metairie lessens Kenner’s competitive advantage. With this economy we need every competitive advantage that we can get.

The Nation’s economy and Kenner’s economy is starting to rebound, DOUBLING PROPERTY TAXES at this point is a terrible idea. Let’s cut spending first, let the economy work itself out, and apply for and not return Federal grants before we keep putting a greater burden on our citizens.

The silver lining in all of this is that this is America and you and I, as residents of Kenner, get to decide. Do you want $8.5 Million in new and increased taxes or do you think that the City should cut spending first, tighten it’s belt as you have, operate more efficiently and do more with less. You have an opportunity to express your opinion tomorrow.

Has Mayor Yenni made some cuts and taken some steps? Yes. Has he cut spending and done enough? I don’t think so. It is my opinion that the Mayor should consider everything, seek more input from Citizens and the Council, and cut spending first before seeking to raise taxes.

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