Council/administration fault line grows wider after property tax failure

Council Chair Kevin Naquin, right, put Joel Robideaux on the spot Monday night, asking whether an anti-tax group had the mayor-president's permission to use his image on a mailer opposing Tuesday's two property tax increases. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Two parishwide property taxes aimed to rightsize the parish general fund failed by 50 points Tuesday night. The result isn’t surprising, but the margin outlines a strident opposition to new taxation and highlights emerging tensions between the administration and the council on how to address lingering parish budget problems.

Council members and the administration are at odds on how to fix the parish budget. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux announced opposition to the taxes at the eleventh hour, drawing frustration from council members who supported the measures. The pair of taxes — one to fund district court operations, the other to provide more dedicated revenue to the parish jail — would have generated $11 million annually, relieving some pressure from the parish general fund, which started this year in the red. The budget was balanced with a $500,000 line item anticipating plans to sell a parish-owned parking garage in Downtown to undetermined private interests.

Still, Robideaux argues the taxes aren’t needed, a position council members say contradicts earlier messaging from the administration that the parish budget has a revenue problem, one that led to cuts this year. The council previously blocked Robideaux’s proposition to sell the Downtown garage to the city for $770,000, a transaction already included in the budget, producing the emergent shortfall. The administration hit the parish budget with 4 percent cuts in the current year and notes in its budget proposal that the jail’s fund balance will zero out in two years. Robideaux told The Advertiser he doesn’t expect more cuts in coming years.

Behind the scenes, Robideaux countered “misinformation” about the jail’s fund surplus days after he went public with his opposition. In remarks emailed Oct. 31 to council members, Robideaux references statements and campaign materials generated by anti-tax advocate Citizens for a New Louisiana and its affiliated Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. Citizens/LCAT circulated a mailer featuring a quote from Robideaux opposing the taxes and a large picture of him.

LCAT argues that both the district court and the courthouse complex — which includes the jail and the district courthouse — take in millions more than needed already. Robideaux’s email disputes the contention that the jail takes in a surplus of $2 million, pointing out that the jail’s operating budget this year will spend all $6.1 million of budgeted revenue. The adopted budget notes that the courthouse complex and the general fund have shifted $26 million in recent years to the jail.

Kevin Naquin put Robideaux on the spot at a council meet on the eve of the election. “Mr. Mayor-President I saw your picture on a flyer,” the council chairman and a co-sponsor of the taxes said. “You approved that? Or they just used your picture?”

Robideaux said he did not approve his appearance on the mailers, according to The Advertiser. The councilman says he hoped Robideaux would take that opportunity to publicly state that Citizens for a New Louisiana was spreading incorrect information, which the mayor knew at least five days before the meeting, but Robideaux didn’t bite.

We could not reach the administration for comment.

The rift between Robideaux and the council isn’t surprising, but it’s still alarming. Robideaux has consistently sought revenue without raising taxes. That was in part his rationale for considering a management agreement for LUS, for rededicating funds for drainage, pursuing redevelopment of the old federal courthouse, (unsuccessfully) selling the Buchanan parking garage to the city and his cryptocurrency moonshot. But it’s concerning that the council and the administration aren’t on the same page going into an election year. The parish budget problem is running into gridlock.

“The mayor president will have to find a solution to fixing the parish problem. Obviously, he has a plan, right?” Naquin said in a statement. “He is the leader of the parish. The council and I tried to find a solution with no support from him. Let’s see what he will propose.”

Naquin is also frustrated with the lack of support among fellow elected officials for the propositions, even as many say there’s a need for new revenue. At a budget summit earlier this year, District Attorney Keith Stutes infamously exhorted other parish electeds to risk political suicide. A third millage for the DA, originally included in Naquin’s tax package, was pulled by the sponsors.

“I’m also frustrated with the fact that the judges knew the situation, so did the clerk of court, and yet no one spoke up. They know how rotten that building is; they can’t pressure wash the windows. They have a list of improvements that they’re going to do. Why didn’t they put that out?” Naquin says. “I took the responsibility of handling the [December fire millage] because it’s the unincorporated area, which is my area. I relied on the judges and the courthouse system and the DA to get out in front and educate people on why [the November tax proposals] were important.”

Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret told The Advertiser Friday he thought the taxes had “zero chance of passing.”

“Don’t expect any significant efforts to address parish budget woes” in 2019, says Councilman Bruce Conque, given that both the council and the mayor-president will be in campaign mode. Clearly, new taxation is politically untenable. The mayor-president’s initiatives have hit some council roadblocks — the old federal courthouse redevelopment is on life support, and the door is closed on an LUS deal for the time being. — Additional reporting by Leslie Turk