COLUMN: LCG passes budget that solves nothing

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After weeks of high-stakes politics, with dozens of amendments and hours of public comments, Lafayette’s city and parish councils passed a compromise budget that doesn’t address any of the city’s or parish’s major budgetary problems. 

The parish is still broke

We won’t know just how broke until all the amendments are processed and the final adopted budget numbers are released in the next few weeks. But there were no major moves to improve the financial strength of the parish general fund. 

Despite Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s proposed budget cutting $800,000 in expenses, the parish general fund is still projected to have an operating deficit of more than $600,000 next year. And it will likely be worse than that as some of the budget amendments adopted last week increased parish expenses, such as killing Guillory’s push to move the parishwide 311 program out of the chief administrative officer’s budget — a program for which the parish pays 20% — to LUS Fiber’s budget. This year the budget for this program was $469,000, so this move alone could wipe out the parish’s $50,000 general fund balance. The parish simply can’t improve its financials through budget cuts alone. At some point, it’s going to need more tax revenue. (Don’t shoot the messenger.)

Corrections and the courthouse are even worse off

In the proposed budget, the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center required a $4.2 million subsidy from a dedicated fund that covers shared costs for the parish judicial complex, which includes LPCC and the parish courthouse. 

That fund — called the courthouse complex fund — was projected to have a $1.2 million operating deficit, dropping its fund balance to $3.8 million by the end of next year. But parallel to this budget process, the Parish Council voted to spend $3.5 million of that fund balance to repair the Buchanan Garage. That exhausts almost all of the reserves available to cover any unexpected cost overruns or repairs for the all of the courthouse and jail for the next year. And there’s a high likelihood there will be unexpected expenses. Just earlier this year the Parish Council had to appropriate $400,000 from the courthouse complex fund to remove concrete panels from the Buchanan Garage that were at risk of falling off. If something like that happens next year, there will be almost no money to resolve such issues. 

Additionally, the courthouse complex fund has had an operating deficit for years, and that will have to stop soon since there’s no more fund balance left to tap into. Meanwhile, both the jail and the courthouse are falling apart and in desperate need of not only repair but replacement, with no plan in sight to address either of those.

The allocation schedule didn’t change

The councils didn’t even touch one of the most contentious and arguably most essential problems facing consolidated government: how the costs of consolidation are shared between the city and the parish. The allocation schedule is a set of formulas that determine how much the city and parish pays for various shared services, such as the mayor-president’s office. Cracking open the allocation schedule was expected to be a hot topic during the budget cycle, now that separate city and parish councils are in place to advocate for their own budgets. 

Despite a handful of pointed discussions during public meetings, the allocation schedule ended up maintaining the status quo. City Council members lamented what they view as imbalance during budget discussion, for instance that the parish government only pays 21% of the mayor-president’s salary. 

The imbalance cuts the other way, too. The parish pays 21% of LCG’s IT operating budget, racking up about $1 million in expenses that, arguably, would be much lower were the parish on its own. 

While the councils punted on allocation in this budget cycle, the issue isn’t going away, especially at a time when both city and parish governments are facing financial constraints. 

The city still cut quality of life services hard

The City Council restored partial funding to almost all of the quality of life services Guillory wanted to eviscerate, but it nevertheless agreed to big cuts that arguably didn’t have to happen.  

Guillory proposed cutting $3.5 million from parks and recreation. The City Council restored $1.75 million, which should allow some employees to get rehired, but that still means the parks and recreation department is going to have to figure out how to work with 25% less funding next year. And Lafayette Parish was already spending well below the statewide average per capita on its parks system compared to other major cities in Louisiana. 

The same is true of the Lafayette Science Museum. It got a couple of positions restored as well as a new fundraising position added, but it’s still going to have to figure out how to operate with a skeleton crew and a budget that’s basically cut in half. 

While they met Guillory in the middle, the cuts are still big. It’s reasonable to wonder whether it’s really a compromise. 

The city has less money budgeted for infrastructure

Despite Guillory’s emphasis on roads, bridges and drainage as the “core functions” of government, his proposed budget actually cut $100 million from the city’s five-year capital outlay budget for infrastructure maintenance and improvements. 

His pessimistic sales tax revenue projections were a large driver of these cuts. But he went a step further by not projecting to raise any money through bond sales for the next three years. So at a time when the city has a $40 million backlog of road work that’s needed, flooding issues that still haven’t been addressed, and numerous public buildings in need of repair, the city’s now projected to have less work done to fix these infrastructure issues, despite having the financial capacity to address this work if it wanted to.

We still don’t really know who’s in charge of what

Guillory’s administration has argued that amendments to any part of the budget that involves consolidated departments requires a vote of both the City Council and Parish Council. That legal argument played out in the debate about funding parks and recreation, a consolidated department that’s almost entirely funded by city taxpayers. The City Council fought to hire its own lawyer to sort all that out. 

But this special counsel wasn’t hired until after the budget was basically approved, so the jury is still out on what the rules will be moving forward. This is a big deal for both councils because, legally speaking, the City Council should have sole legislative authority over how to spend city dollars, and likewise the the Parish Council over its dollars. 

But to date, Guillory’s administration has argued against that separation of powers. That means we don’t really know how mid-year budget decisions will play out, so long as Guillory’s legal team continues an adversarial posture toward the councils, particularly the City Council. 

This budgeting process isn’t over yet

Guillory still has a few more days left to veto any amendments he doesn’t like. While the final budget meeting had a kumbaya vibe, Guillory has proven unafraid of breaking out his veto pen. 

Normally, he can only veto ordinances in full, but during the budget-making process he has the authority to execute line-item vetos, crossing off individual items he doesn’t like while leaving the rest of the budget intact. The city and/or parish councils would still have the opportunity to override any veto if they can secure at least four votes. 

Last year proved that the budget process is never really done. Literally within days of the 2019/2020 budget being passed, the former City-Parish Council voted to approve a series of raises for employees that added millions in expenses to the current budget.

It’s unclear if there will be any attempts to make wholesale changes outside of the normal budgeting process this year. But it’s a reminder that even if you didn’t get everything you want through in this budget, there are more bites at this apple to come.