How to fix Lafayette Parish’s budget without raising taxes

   

Way back in 1930, Sir Ernest Benn mused that “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Certainly, bureaucrats are always finding problems; and they always have the same solution close at hand. That’s what was happening, yet again, on November 4th, 2020, until Lafayette Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin pulled a 0.2¢ sales tax increase proposal and gave a shout out to Citizens for a New Louisiana.

Kevin and I met on December 2nd, 2020. The solution provided by the bureaucracy, PR-016-2020, was a brand new 0.2¢ sales tax, which is expected to generate about $12,524,000 per year in new tax revenue. That plan would effectively double the parish’s annual general fund revenue. Remember, the stated goal is to have $12 million “in the piggy bank.” If that’s what this is about, then this tax would accomplish that in a single year. So, why did the bureaucrats make it a ten-year tax?

A new hope?

After more than twenty-five years of lectures about the parish budget problems, and countless failed “solutions,” could Kevin Naquin finally be the one to fix it? He didn’t just publicly ask for our help at that council meeting. He actually reached out and set up a meeting to talk. While the initial (and annually recurring) solution provided by the bureaucrats was a tax increase, he legitimately wanted to know what other solutions are out there.

We all know Kevin is fearless and resilient. Yes, there are local voices who believe Kevin isn’t a conservative. However, he won’t be backed into a corner by anyone and has shown that he can be quite unflappable. Like many of our new friends all across Acadiana, including numerous Democrats and independents, he knew that Citizens for a New Louisiana can provide a different perspective. That’s because, unlike the bureaucracy, we don’t gain or lose anything whether or not the council decides to put a tax on the ballot. We also know the budgets and annual reports better than anyone else outside (and maybe even inside) the government.

Working together to find the solution

Kevin showed up with supporting documents for the tax increase provided by Conrad Comeaux and other bureaucrats, but he also showed up with an open mind. He knew the tax angle was the same, stale message that gets belched out of the bureaucracy every single year. The voters say, “no,” and the cycle repeats.

Even though a chorus of local media voices are blindly demanding higher taxes (and asking to not “shoot the messenger”), Kevin knew that following their usual bad advice would only be meet with failure again. That’s how I knew his pulling the bureaucrats’ tax increase proposal wan’t just a publicity stunt. He wanted to break the cycle. We ended up having quite a long conversation (about an hour and a half) and he listened intently.

Is it really possible to fix problems without raising taxes?

Remember the fire tax? That’s when LCG waited until the last minute to announce the “only solution” to prevent downgrading the parish’s fire rating was to raise your taxes. It wasn’t until after the tax failed that the fire rating documents were made available. The rating got worse because there wasn’t enough water in the unincorporated parts of the parish. Another huge problem is the fire tax did not address the core problem of water distribution. That means, had the tax passed, you’d be paying a higher insurance premium and higher taxes.

How would we address that problem without raising taxes? We actually told several council members how they can do just that. Putting pipe and water in the ground is the only real fix. The Water Districts North and South are in the unincorporated parts of the parish. It’s their responsibility to put water in the ground and to charge customers for that service. And they have bonding authority.

It’s cheaper and certainly more convenient to have a pipe bring water than it is for an average citizen to maintain a water well, softeners, a septic tank, etc. Plus, if the power goes out, parish water is gravity fed so it’ll continue to flow. Once people have agreed to become customers, the district can bond the construction cost against future revenue. The bond is then repaid slowly over many years through each person’s water bill.

Presto, the only people who have to pay for it are the ones using the water and sewer service – and it’d cost less than maintaining their own water well system. That puts more water in the parish, bringing down your fire rating. They should have started working on all of this a decade ago. They’re doing it now, though.

How do we apply this principal to the parish budget problem?

First, and foremost, the Sheriff is costing the parish $3,509,248 more per year than in years past – that we know of. That, alone, would probably solve the parish’s annual budget shortfall with room to spare. We told you about all this back in September. Certainly, Kevin Naquin can’t personally do much to recover this revenue. That process is the hands of the Mayor-President’s office, who has been working through a lawsuit with the sheriff since before M-P Josh Guillory took over. The last action was in May of 2020 when parish attorney, Greg Logan, replaced Joy Rabalais as the attorney of record on the case.

Before Mr. Logan took over, Ms. Rabalais had done an amazing job of setting things up. She responded to the Sheriff’s baseless accusations that the parish wasn’t paying it’s fair share. Her response was a stunning reconventional demand that listed quite a bit of the $3.5 million in annual revenue that I’m suggesting the parish should reclaim. While the Parish Council doesn’t have much (if any) direct control over the lawsuit process, they do control the council agenda. Adding a discussion item every few months would keep this recovery effort in the public eye and remind M-P Guillory of its importance.

Second, and equally strong, is the opportunity to rededicate 2.0 mills in ad valorem property taxes from the library new construction fund to the general fund. That tax doesn’t come up for renewal until 2022, but they could put a rededication before the voters right now. According to page 152 of the most recent annual report, the library took in $15,136,316 last year. While the loss of a third millage has been keeping the budget fairly tight, it’s possible to tighten further. Another thing to keep in mind is the major capital outlay projects (like the brand new Kenneth Boudreaux branch – worth about $8 million) are not moving forward.

The library also needs to make major shifts in aligning needs to expenditures, instead of the other way around. With those re-alignments, the library could probably shave off about $3 million a year that could go straight to the general fund. The only way to even start that conversation, though, is for the council to undedicated this 2 mills property tax.

Third, page 147 of the annual report shows the public health millage brought in $4,891,809 in excessive revenues. Of that, $1,221,033 went to mosquito abatement, and 1,660,379 was used for the Animal Shelter (which currently reflects a $10 million surplus in preparation for building a new facility). If these numbers hold, that’s $2 million in excessive revenue every single year that could go straight into the parish general fund.

The grand total

Reclaiming all of this revenue has the potential to bring $8.5 million in recurring revenue into the parish general fund. That’s not the $12 million “best case” plan put forward by the bureaucracy. However, in two short years (if they don’t increase spending) it could add $17 million to the “piggy bank.” And we didn’t have to raise your taxes.

Another thing to consider is public sentiment. The effort to rededicate the parish culture tax to core government functions was successful in November. However, a similar effort to undedicate a small portion of two existing sales taxes failed in December for the City of Lafayette. That failure was likely driven by lack of voter education on the issue. I know this because many of our readers reached out to me to ask about it.

Kevin was listening, He said he’ll bring this information to the department heads, Mayor-President’s office, and the accountants and follow back up soon. This is the kind of leadership that Lafayette needs right now. Presenting alternatives to the bureaucracy’s repetitive, cookie-cutter “solutions” won’t be easy, though. Kevin Naquin will need our prayers and encouragement more than ever before.

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