Why we need to fix the status quo for funding our courthouse and jail

“I look for things to go very slowly next week,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret says of the Lafayette Parish Courthouse's reopening. Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The reason we’re considering adding millions in new property taxes for our parish correctional center and district courts is simple: New revenue is the only way for parish government to start fixing its budget and solve the deplorable state of the parish jail and courthouse.

Taxes dedicated to funding the jail don’t generate enough revenue to cover the parish’s share of its costs. As a result, the operations and maintenance of the jail has sucked up $26.5 million in subsidies from the parish general fund ($7.4 million) and the Courthouse Complex Fund ($19.1 million), which funds the courthouse and the jail.

This has been an issue for years, but it’s coming to a head now in large part because of the dire condition of the parish general fund and the dilapidated condition of the courthouse and its recently condemned parking garage.

Five years of declining taxes have reduced the parish general fund’s revenue by 19 percent. This has forced multiple rounds of budget cuts, as well as repeated spending of the parish’s fund balance — the money carried over from year to year to pay for unexpected expenses and invest in new projects.

In this fiscal year the parish’s fund balance is budgeted to drop to $100,000 and is projected to stay there for the foreseeable future.

That means the parish will have no cushion if something unexpected happens and no capacity to invest in any new opportunities that arise. Reducing stress on the general fund is one of the primary motivations for the taxes.

To illustrate the problem: A few weeks ago, city-oriented council members decided not to approve the sale of a parish-owned parking garage Downtown to the city for $770,000. This year’s budget assumed the transaction would go through. Now, the mayor-president and the council are scrambling to find $770,000 in cuts from the parish general fund.

If these financial conditions persist, the jail won’t have the parish general fund as its piggy bank to tap into whenever it needs additional capital for maintenance or unexpected expenses. Meanwhile the jail has zero fund balance of its own, which puts even more pressure on our Courthouse Complex Fund to keep the jail open and functioning.

On the surface, this may not seem like much of an issue. The Courthouse Complex Fund is budgeted to end the year with a fund balance north of $5 million. But that fund balance is projected to be used up over the next couple of years just in maintaining the baseline operations of the jail and courthouse.

And that’s before you factor in all of the millions that need to be invested in renovating and modernizing our courthouse, not to mention replacing our parking garage, which could cost more than $3 million on its own.

So what this all adds up to is that the parish has a crappy jail, an even crappier courthouse, a parking garage that’s unsafe for humans, a parish government that’s living paycheck to paycheck, and not near enough funding to fix these existing issues let alone be able to respond to any new problems that may arise in the future.

If the status quo holds, not only will the jail, courthouse and parish general fund not get any better, but they will all be at risk of getting significantly worse if anything unexpected happens.

Which brings us back to the proposed and arguably ill-timed taxes. I’ve seen a few common arguments against them, some recently voiced by the mayor-president:

We don’t need more money because the status quo is fine

For starters, the status quo is not fine. And the only surefire way to get more money in the near-term is to add or raise taxes. Our only other option is to wait around for the state to have more money or for property values to increase significantly enough to raise existing taxes, but I wouldn’t count on either happening any time soon.

They’re asking for more money than is actually needed

It’s hard to say these proposed taxes are raising the right amount of money. We don’t have an itemized list of what the money will be used for. But there’s clearly plenty of work that needs funding. Things are so bad at the courthouse that they can’t even power wash the exterior for fear glass from the windows will come crashing down because of rotten seals. And there’s a whole host of other renovations and improvements that are needed there, from removing the asbestos from three floors ($1.5 million per floor) to building new waiting rooms to separate victims from the families of the perpetrators. And that’s all before we even get to replacing the parking garage or modernizing the jail.

Now is not the right time for any new taxes

When it comes to the timing of this effort, there’s never a good time to raise taxes. And there’s always going to be the risk that increased taxation will dissuade investors from investing. But I think there’s a strong case to be made that if we would have passed these taxes two years ago, the parking garage might still be open and there’d still be money left in the parish general fund. And the longer we wait to fix these problems the more expensive they’ll get in the future as facilities continue to waste away.

This isn’t the right structure for new taxes

This is an argument that resonates with me. It’s harder to sell the public on increasing taxes to fill holes in budgets than it is to build specific projects (like the new airport terminal). I’d find taxes focused on building a new jail outside of Downtown and a new courthouse with modern amenities easier to support.

But in the end I don’t believe our community can afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The status quo of an underfunded jail and courthouse and a parish general fund that’s effectively broke is simply not acceptable nor is it sustainable.

Without new funding we’re at risk of staying stuck in a constant cycle of cutting budgets in response to unexpected expenses, not having the capacity to properly maintain the public’s assets, and not being able to respond effectively to whatever crisis our parish faces next.

That’s why on Nov. 6 when I walk into the voting booth, I’ll be voting yes for these two new property taxes. Not because I want to pay more in taxes or because I think these are the best taxes or the best time for them, but because I believe that we can’t afford the status quo any longer. If we don’t act now, these problems will only get worse with no guarantee for when the next opportunity to fix them will come back around.