In defense of a budget not accounting for a potential decline in sales tax collections in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, Mayor Jamie Mayo chided Monroe City Councilman Doug Harvey for asking questions during a public meeting Tuesday night.
During one exchange between the pair, Harvey claimed he heard the mayor call him “dumba**” though Mayo denied making the remark.
No one from the public was present for the exchange. The public meeting was streamed live on Facebook because citizens were not allowed to attend in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Ouachita Citizen was the only media outlet covering the meeting inside City Council chambers.
Mayo admonished Harvey after the councilman questioned whether the Mayo administration should propose a budget projecting steady sales tax collections. The proposed $61.1-million budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year was presented to the City Council earlier this year. The Mayo administration has not altered the budget’s projections despite recent decreased economic activity.
Harvey asked why the Mayo administration would not consider trimming certain expenditures in the event sales tax revenues failed to meet projections. Based on The Ouachita Citizen’s audio recording of the meeting, it appeared Mayo did not say “dumba** Mr. Harvey” but “...to my answer, Mr. Harvey.”
“Apparently you’re not listening to my answer, Mr. Harvey,” Mayo said. “And I don’t know how plain I can make it without saying that the questions you’ve asked again, we’ve answered your questions.”
The Ouachita Citizen asked Harvey about the exchange after the meeting. At that time, Harvey said he believed Mayo had called him a “dumba**.”
“It’s unfortunate that he resorted to name calling instead of offering real solutions for what has the potential to be a budget crisis for the city of Monroe,” Harvey said.
Later, on Facebook, Harvey shared a video of the exchange and said, “It’s not everyday you can get your mayor to call you a dumbass on Facebook Live.” Near midnight on Tuesday, Harvey told The Ouachita Citizen he was aware of Mayo’s claim that the remark was misunderstood and would remove his Facebook video.
“Either way, I will be (the) bigger person and say regardless of what was said that I will take my video of it down,” Harvey said. “My focus was and still is on the budget and its holes.”
Mayo has used obscene language to describe a councilman in the past. In 2017, Mayo called former Monroe City Councilman Michael Echols a “piece of s***” during a City Council meeting. Echols and Harvey are friends and political allies of Monroe mayoral candidate Friday Ellis. Ellis is one of four candidates challenging Mayo in his bid for re-election. The mayoral election was postponed until June 20 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The discussion leading up to the heated exchange began after Harvey and City Councilman Kenneth “Kenny” Wilson posed questions about Mayo’s proposed budget.
Wilson asked Dan Richards, the city’s budget officer, to elaborate on the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak and how the state’s restrictions on local businesses might impact sales tax collections. Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an order on Sunday ordering non-essential businesses to close to avoid further spread of the virus.
“Do we need to revise the sales tax collection of revenue in this budget here?” Wilson said.
“There’s no plan to revise the proposed budget at this point,” Richards said. “After we get some data in over the next month or two, we will look to amend the fiscal year of the 2021 budget.”
Earlier this week, Stacey Rowell, the city’s director of administration, said the administration was keeping track of the COVID-19 outbreak’s effect on city business but would not change the budget.
“It does not take into account any of the effects that the COVID-19 might have on our sales taxes,” Rowell said.
Wilson suggested the city lead by example and revise its revenue projections.
“Well, like I said, we are in the beginning stages of trying to identify the amount of financial impact,” Richards said. “We have just started to look at the numbers.”
Mayo chimed in by claiming he and Rowell and Jimmie Bryant, the city’s chief operating officer, had the matter under control.
“So Mayor, you’re saying you all have the numbers so we can do all that?” Wilson said.
“Well, preliminarily we started talking about it, but we haven’t just sat down and started putting together things because we are dealing with the mitigation measures and the communication and all that right now to try to keep our employees safe as well as our citizens safe,” Mayo said. “I can assure this administration will be on top of things, as we always are.”
At that time, Harvey said he could not support the proposed budget with full confidence in the sales tax projections.
“I think the one thing we are certain of is that the revenue will have a material reduction, so my question would be what are we going to do proactively now knowing that that drop is coming?” Harvey said.
Mayo replied, claiming Richards had already answered that objection.
“Well, I think he just said that we really don’t know what that is right now,” Mayo said.
Mayo explained that his administration would not know the final effect of the state’s recent restrictions on sales tax revenues until the city received a sales tax collection statement in April.
“I know you’re new here, but the way we operate is a little differently than the way you do in the private sector,” Mayo said.
Harvey suggested a hypothetical scenario to determine how the city might respond in the event that sales tax collections did drop.
“Let’s say this number goes down by 5 percent, which is probably around $2.2 million, would I plan on taking that from the general fund surplus or reducing services,” Harvey said. “These are real conversations. I think we’re being unrealistic if we’re not thinking a 5 percent reduction in sales tax is realistic.”
“Well you’re being presumptuous,” Mayo said.
“The whole budget is presumptuous,” Harvey said.
“We don’t know what that is right now, and we don’t know until we see those numbers, then we will let you know,” Mayo said.
When Harvey defended his questions, Mayo berated him for not listening, leading to the contested exchange.
Ultimately, the City Council approved Mayo’s budget on a 3-1 vote. City Council members Gretchen Ezernack, Juanita Woods and Wilson voted in favor of the budget. Harvey cast the lone vote against the budget.
Ezernack and Woods defended the Mayo administration in its claim that the proposed budget could be later amended to reflect actual sales tax collections.
After the meeting, Harvey explained why he voted against the introduction of the budget.
“Because it doesn’t account for the revenue following that we know is coming and it does not fund the things we all say we care about,” Harvey said.
Zach Parker, news editor at The Ouachita Citizen, contributed to this news report.