Vidalia budget discussion turns heated over Alderman’s request for travel reimbursement

Published 4:07 pm Wednesday, June 14, 2023

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VIDALIA, La. — A Tuesday night budget discussion ended in a heated argument between Aldermen Robert Gardner and Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft about reimbursement for Gardner’s travel expenses for town business in Baton Rouge.

Gardner said his fee to attend the Baton Rouge conference in April had been paid. However, Gardner said he did not get reimbursed for lodging and travel expenses.

Robert Gardner

Gardner also asked the board’s permission to attend another conference in August.

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However, Craft said the authority to approve reimbursement for travel and lodging expenses lies only with the mayor.

“You don’t have to ask for approval. You have to ask me for approval,” Craft said. “You have not done that. Your problem is that you call employees to do these things for you and you don’t have that authority. That authority lies with the mayor. I have the authority to direct employees on what to do. Every other person in here calls me if they want to go to something. Why can’t you do the same?”

Gardner argued that if he makes the request in an open meeting, there should be no need for him to come into his office to make a travel request.

When the mayor insisted that Gardner come to his office to fill out the paperwork, Garner requested a board member to come with him as a witness.

Gardner also said he didn’t want to be accused of stealing from the town. Last year, he was sentenced to a year of probation and restitution to the town after pleading no contest to taking envelopes owned by the Town of Vidalia with prepaid postage and mailing them to the voter registrar’s office to request absentee ballots as he was running for reelection.

At least 11 of the envelopes turned up at the registrar’s office and appeared to have the town’s information whited out. However, Gardner said the envelopes had been given to him and upon realizing he had been charged with a crime, he paid $5 for the envelopes and was given a receipt.

“I’m talking to you now,” Gardner said Tuesday. “So, I’m asking for my money in front of the board and the public and everybody for you to reimburse me. … If I’m telling you now, I don’t need to come to your office because I don’t want you saying that I stole a bottle of water or a pen or anything from the town.”

In other matters during the Tuesday meeting, the Vidalia Board of Aldermen adopted an operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and ending June 30, 2024.

The overall projected revenue is $56,747,700 and expenses are $46,190,250 for a positive difference of $10,557,450.

The estimated beginning fund balance is $40,024,533 and the estimated ending fund balance is $50,581,983.

The millage rate for property taxes collected by the town has not changed, so any fluctuation in ad valorem tax comes from increases or decreases in the assessed value of properties. Overall, the ad valorem taxes collected are projected to increase by 7 percent. Sales taxes are also up by $490,000 from the same time last year due to new construction in the town, said the town’s CPA and municipal accountant, Debra Moak.

Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft said these increases are good.

“It goes to show that we’re experiencing really good growth in our town,” he said.

Moak said Vidalia recently paid off $10.8 million in debts owed on municipal purchases, including a new fire truck, the electric substation and expenses related to the existing sports complex adjacent to the municipal buildings.

Several budget requests were made by department heads and were included in the budget officials passed on Tuesday.

Among these expenses are the following:

·      Streets and Sanitation requested a new buckle boom truck for approximately $200,000; a four-wheel drive tractor with a bat wing bush hog for $130,000; a used garbage truck for $100,000; ice machines for the shop and barn for $11,000; and a wheeled cart and blower for $25,000.

·      Vidalia Police Department requested a five-year lease with Axon Enterprises to purchase 25 Tasers and cartridges for a total cost of $104,800 paid at a rate of $21,000 per year; Cellebrite software to help investigators solve cases that involve cellphones for $18,000; an ice maker for $5,100; and use of an old ambulance that is no longer being used by Vidalia Fire Department to transport Special Response Team equipment to an incident scene.

·      Vidalia Fire Department requested a new battery-powered Jaws of Life for $46,000 to replace an older hydraulics-powered system, which would still be used as backup. Further funds were requested from the ambulance fund for renovating the fire station on John Dale Drive for an ambulance house. The estimated cost of renovations is $250,000. A request was also made to refurbish the old fire truck parked at the station that is not in working condition to be displayed in parades and other town activities if the funds are available.

·      The IT department requested $124,000 in capital outlay, including approximately 44,000 for computer upgrades and additional fiber optic and broadband materials to improve the town’s internet services where needed.

·      The recreation department requested a new zero-turn mower for $12,000; an air compressor for $5,000; and a new air conditioner for the recreation building for $8,000.

·      The Vidalia Conference and Convention Center requested $285,000 for non-routine maintenance such as repolishing floors, replacing air conditioners and caulking walls. An additional $72,800 was asked for to upgrade WiFi, paint light poles and repair sidewalks.

·      Additional requests were made for town utilities, including $240,00 for electric, $54,000 for gas; $1,646,000 for water; and $158,500 for sewer to be used for various equipment and updates. The water department requested $1.5 million to raise water wells near the Vidalia riverfront by six feet to ensure that the town’s water supply is not impacted by flooding of the Mississippi River.