The sheriff’s tax shoots the moon. His ambition could cost him.

Garber, flanked by his top brass, speaks at his swearing-in ceremony in 2016. Photo by Wynce Nolley

Sheriff Mark Garber’s half-cent sales tax proposition is ambitious by any measure. With one go at the ballot box on Dec. 8, he’s attempting to solve all his financial troubles and then some.

While a half cent might not sound like much, it’s projected to generate $25 million in its first year, $250 million in its first decade, and, given that it doesn’t expire, $1 billion over the next 40 years.

With that money, he’s planning to hire about 90 new deputies; (possibly) supplement the salaries of every police department in the parish; renovate and expand his infrastructure; pay off a ton of debt; and amass a huge fund balance.

In a bid for transparency, he signed a first-of-its-kind resolution this month that creates a covenant spelling out exactly what his law enforcement tax would fund. And he’s shared a budgeted list at the end of a Powerpoint presentation he’s been giving to local community groups over the last few weeks.

Some have argued that it’s an overreach on the revenue side alone, particularly for an economy that’s still struggling; it’s a giant tax that will increase the sheriff’s revenue by 50 percent. But budgetarily, it’s an unprecedented ask.  

To start with, Garber wants to build up a fund balance large enough to cover an entire year’s worth of operating expenses — more than $80 million if the tax passes.

LPSO spokesman John Mowell argues that a fund balance of this magnitude backstops the sheriff’s financials in the event of a natural disaster that’s big enough to level homes and buildings, which could decimate property tax revenue.

Maintaining operating reserves isn’t a bad idea, but a balance of that scale is unusual to say the least. By comparison, Lafayette Consolidated Government has a target of carrying a fund balance each year of 20 percent for the city’s general fund, which has a budget of about $100 million. Currently the city more than doubles that target with north of $40 million on hand. Some argue that even a 40 percent operating reserve is excessive.

While that may be comparing apples to oranges, a closer peer would be the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s office. That agency has a budget of $93 million and a $14.8 million fund balance, a level considered “adequate,” according to its most recent financial statement.

A $14.8 million fund balance is just shy of 16 percent of a $93 million budget. LPSO’s current fund balance of $17 million is just shy of 27 percent relative to its budget of $63 million. By that measure, it’s already healthy.

Garber’s ask is reasonable in principle. We live in a part of the country that’s prone to natural disasters. And in the aftermath of recovering from a potential future natural disaster, public safety funding is essential.

But what Garber is after is an overabundance of caution. Ultimately, Garber’s plan angles to reduce financial risk to a level virtually no other public agency enjoys. That’s evident in his approach to debt.

If this tax passes, Garber plans to accelerate paying off the $17 million in debt incurred by predecessor Mike Neustrom to build the Public Safety Center on Willow Street. Paying off debt means spending less public money on interest, but it comes at a cost to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, LPSO’s debt service — the cost of paying down a loan — is manageable. As it stands, servicing debt costs the sheriff just over $500,000 per year. That’s less than 1 percent of his overall budget, a pretty reasonable amount. More to the point, there’s no evidence that the sheriff can’t get loans to finance his needs going forward.

His debt aversion extends to $20 million in future pension liabilities that are currently unfunded, which is a common problem in government. In fact, it’s estimated that when you add up all the future unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments, it equals more than $21,000 per capita across the state of Louisiana. The sheriff’s future unfunded pension liabilities amount to less than $100 per capita spread across all Lafayette Parish residents.

To put this all into perspective, if this new tax passes, in 10 years time the sheriff will have paid off $37 million in debt with no future unfunded pension liabilities, built up a fund balance of more than $80 million, and will still collect almost $20 million more in revenue than he currently does. He’ll add 100 new staff, (potentially) give raises to every police officer in every law enforcement agency in the parish (if he’s legally allowed to do so; Lafayette PD is not yet even on board with him), all while renovating, expanding and building a variety of new facilities.

So strong would his fiscal outlook be that he’s already committed to lowering the $37 million he currently collects in property taxes by $5 million in the seventh year of this new sales tax. And he has suggested that he may be able to lower that figure even further depending on future spending needs.

Put simply, if it passes, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office should have all the money it needs for the foreseeable future.

Here’s the thing. Garber’s ambition is risky. By asking for so much, he’s jeopardizing getting anything at all. And he does, in fact, arguably need more revenue.

While some have described the sheriff’s growing $17 million fund balance as a surplus, the more important number to look at is the sheriff’s net position. Net position is the sum of the sheriff’s assets and liabilities, including depreciation of assets and future unfunded liabilities. By that measure the Lafayette sheriff is in the hole and dropping. In 2016 LPSO’s net position was -$32 million, and in 2017 that fell another $5 million to -$37 million. That number already factors in the $17 million fund balance.

In other words, Garber’s already spending every dollar that comes in the door, and there’s no money to fill this growing hole in his budget. That’s a real policy problem.

For many in the unincorporated areas of the parish, this will be a tax cut. Rural citizens will see an existing 1 cent sales tax cut by half. But for those inside cities and towns — two thirds of the entire parish population — this is a half-cent increase on top of what they’re already paying for city police departments. Not to mention that residents in the city of Lafayette already pay for two-thirds of the property tax the sheriff collects.

In an anti-tax climate, any new tax Garber would present faces an uphill battle. Indeed, Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes has already voiced opposition, a position joined by the Lafayette Police Association, the city’s local police union.

While Garber’s basic pitch may be right — that he needs more to serve a growing community — his ambition may have overshot what’s politically feasible, and that could cost him dearly both on Dec. 8 and potentially during his reelection campaign next year.