Lafayette sheriff files suit claiming Lafayette Parish, LCG not paying bills at parish jail

Sheriff Mark Garber addresses the Lafayette City-Parish Council Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: In early October, Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber filed suit against Lafayette Parish and Lafayette Consolidated Government, asking the court to decide what costs the parish is responsible for to run the parish jail. Filed in state district court, the suit claims the parish hasn’t been paying its fair share, and if Garber’s right, parish government is in an even deeper financial hole than anyone realized.

Get caught up, quickly. In August, Garber tried to broker a compromise on this issue, proposing that LCG increase funding for the jail by $1.7 million to cover the costs of 35 positions. But the City-Parish Council, at the request of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, refused to include his request in LCG’s FY 2019-2020 budget. 

Now Garber’s suing to force LCG to live up to what he says are its state-mandated responsibilities. The Oct. 4 suit accuses LCG of not covering a variety of state-mandated costs — from medical care to maintaining the jail, to feeding and clothing prisoners, to educating them and providing access to chaplain services. 

It’s not clear just how much Garber is seeking, but the suit lists a $12.7 million annual deficit in medical care alone. These are costs the sheriff has been paying that he’s now asserting should be paid for by the parish. Garber maintains state law is on his side.

“There’s a disagreement on whose responsibility these expenses are,” says John Mowell, public affairs director for the sheriff. “We feel the law is really clear on that, and it’s been taken through the court system.”

LCG’s legal department has a different interpretation of those laws. In a Sept. 4 memo, Robideaux asked the council to reject the sheriff’s request for $1.7 million in funding, citing the need for clarification from legal counsel on who’s responsible for these costs. 

The Robideaux administration declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.

If the sheriff prevails, even in part, parish government will be in a massive financial hole. As it stands, there’s no money available in the parish general fund, and all of the money dedicated to the jail is already being spent. What’s more, some of the money dedicated to the courthouse is currently funding the jail, and the courthouse’s $4.9 million fund balance would fall to zero if the court decides the parish only has to pay the additional $1.7 million the sheriff initially requested. And if the Sheriff wins it could cost the parish a lot more than $1.7 million.

If the mayor-president is right, the problem doesn’t go away. It just means the sheriff’s finances will continue to be constrained. According to Mowell, the sheriff’s employee count is down approximately 80 from a year ago, and its deputies are the lowest paid of all the parish’s law enforcement agencies, in large part because of constraints in the sheriff’s budget.

What to watch for: The approach the new mayor-president and parish council take when they assume office in January. They could choose to follow LCG’s legal interpretation and fight, or try to negotiate a settlement. The problem is the parish can’t afford to pay anything more without cuts to a budget that’s already stretched thin in all directions.