COLUMN: The parish needs to raise taxes (don’t shoot the messenger)

Large piggy bank broken with a piece laying on a person
Illustration by Peter DeHart

I come as the bearer of bad news. If we want our parish government to have the capacity to deliver essential services, we’re going to have to pay more taxes. Just hear me out. 

As it stands today, every essential service parish government delivers is underfunded. 

The parishwide property tax for roads and drainage collects less than $10 million per year, but there’s a growing backlog of around $60 million worth of roadwork. 

Drainage and stormwater management collect just north of $10 million per year, but we have to invest tens, if not hundreds, of millions to increase our parish’s drainage capacity enough to meaningfully prevent flooding. 

The parish jail and courthouse collect just over $10 million, but they need at least $15 million to cover baseline operations and maintenance — plus many millions more to replace both aging facilities. 

Normally, when dedicated tax revenue is insufficient, the parish’s general fund could step in to help close any gaps in funding. But that fund is even more woefully underfunded, with declining revenues and a balance that’s fallen perilously close to zero. Meanwhile the parish has faced a series of lawsuits for not living up to its constitutionally mandated obligations for funding parish services like the district attorney, district judges and the operations of the jail in partnership with the sheriff.

The bottom line is the parish does not have enough money to pay for the delivery of its essential services. In order to address this situation, the parish has few options.

The most politically popular solution is cutting spending. But we’ve already cut spending on pretty much all non-essential services, so there’s just nothing left to cut unless we want to start shuttering libraries.

The most politically expedient solution would be to raid the parish’s fund balances. But that card was already played by the last administration. In fact, at the start of the last fiscal year, the total balance of all parish funds was $118 million, but at the end of this fiscal year that total is projected to drop to $24 million. 

The most politically optimistic solution is to somehow increase revenues without increasing taxes. But there aren’t any viable options on the table. Sure, the parish could raise prices for fees and fines, but that won’t generate enough money. Politicians like to talk about encouraging real estate development and economic growth as a panacea, but there’s literally no way for them to turn a magic knob to make that happen. Even if they could, it would take years before that activity would lead to more money coming into parish government. 

And while there’s often talk about the need to secure more money from the state and federal government, neither of those can be relied on for the kind of recurring revenue the parish needs to not just fix one road or repair one building but to have the capacity to maintain all of the parish’s crumbling infrastructure while having adequate funding to deliver essential services.

That brings us to a much less politically popular option — rather than just cut costs, we reduce services. By that I mean measures like converting asphalt roads to gravel, or abandoning maintenance of some roads or coulees. Or perhaps we shut off a couple floors of the jail and reduce the number of jailable offenses so fewer people get locked up. Or maybe we establish a moratorium on all real estate developments that don’t generate enough tax revenue to pay for the infrastructure developers expect parish government to take over and pay to maintain. Without new revenue, parish government will either have to reduce these services or we will have to accept the fact that it will never deliver the essential services we expect. 

That leaves only one practical option — raise taxes. Anti-tax sentiment has calcified in our local politics; no one wants to pay more taxes. But I don’t see any way around the fact that we have to raise taxes if we want a parish government that isn’t perpetually broke and unable to deliver on its obligations to provide essential services. 

The only questions left are the form of taxes and how much more we need to pay. We could increase the parish’s general alimony millage that funds its general fund. Or we could increase the millages dedicated to these essential services. Or we could add new millage(s) for whatever purposes are needed most. Or we could add a new sales tax.

Given that all efforts to pass new parish millages have failed in recent years, Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin floated a proposal to institute a new .2 cent — yes, two-tenths of a cent — parishwide sales tax. Doing this would increase revenue to the parish’s general fund by about $12 million per year. While this wouldn’t be enough to solve all of the parish’s financial woes, it would make a significant dent, and it would give the parish greater capacity to sell bonds to pay for large infrastructure projects, like building a new jail or courthouse or embarking on a large-scale drainage project. 

Naquin paused the effort on the cusp of putting it on the March 2021 ballot and instead opened the floor to anyone in our parish who has a better idea for how to fix the parish’s budget issues.

But despite the obvious arguments against raising taxes when our local economy’s in a recession and the lack of trust in government to be good stewards of our money, I honestly don’t see how the parish has any other viable options. And I’m kind of fed up with people arguing against the possibility of even considering implementing new taxes with bumper sticker slogans rather than proposing real solutions to address the real problems our parish faces.

It’s time we all wake up to the fact that our parish government is woefully underfunded, and that we need to do something other than just complain. If someone has a better way for our parish government to fix its financial woes without raising taxes, I’m all ears.