Officials question parking lot funds

Two Shreveport city councilmen have asked the city attorney to determine whether Mayor Keith Hightower misappropriated city funds by arbitrarily spending $97,000 from the street asphalt overlay budget to construct a parking lot at Clyde Fant and Stoner Avenue.
The requests to City Attorney Ramon Lafitte seek legal opinions on whether the city administration can fund an unauthorized project with monies designated and approved by the City Council for street overlay, and whether the city charter has been violated as a result.

The 174-space parking lot was constructed within the past two weeks off the parkway along Red River, near the Frisbee Golf course at Stoner Avenue. Without seeking input from the seven-member City Council, the mayor authorized spending nearly $100,000 to construct the parking lot to accommodate youth soccer leagues and future fishing tournaments and other events on Red River.

Councilmen Mike Gibson and Thomas Carmody are questioning whether the mayor had legal authority to fund the project under city charter. The charter states "no funds shall be expended and no obligation incurred other than in accordance with the operating budget ordinances,' or for "capital projects other than in accordance with the capital budget ordinances.'

Lafitte did not return calls from The Times on Wednesday.

"This was obviously unauthorized use of funds. I don't see a gray area here,' Gibson said. "I'm interested in seeing what the city attorney has to say. My concern is how many other times are we going to get into a situation where the mayor says, 'This is a high priority and I know better than the City Council.''

Department of Operational Services Director Mike Strong said the money to fund the parking lot construction came from the city's $1.5 million street asphalt overlay program, which was approved by the City Council as part of the city's 2003 budget. Strong said two street projects included in the budget were taken off the overlay priority list because it was determined they were in need of reconstruction, not an overlay. That freed up funds that ultimately were used to asphalt overlay the parking lot, he said. The parking lot was constructed by Benton & Brown of Minden, which was the low bidder on the city's street asphalt overlay contract.

It's not the first time the city has used asphalt overlay funds to pave a parking lot, Strong said. In December 2002, the city spent an estimated $60,000 to pave a 100-space public parking lot across from the Harrah's parking garage at Commerce Street at Caddo Street. The lot stretches an entire block west to Spring Street. Strong said the city "has been repaid by Harrah's, so money will go back into the asphalt overlay program.'

During Monday's City Council meeting, the mayor said he OK'd the parkway parking lot project because of safety concerns stemming from parents taking their children to soccer practice and parking along the parkway, which has a posted speed limit of 50 mph.

City Council Chairman Monty Walford, whose District B contains the Stoner area, said he's eager to hear the city attorney's opinion.

"Certainly I'm interested, and if it was handled improperly I think it was unintentional,' he said. "I think the intent was to provide a much-needed parking lot. For the people of my district I'm glad we got the lot. If it was done improperly I think everyone wants to know.'
The Shreveport Times
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