COLUMN: The troubling economics of fixing the Buchanan garage

Photo by Travis Gauthier

Parish Council members are on the verge of fixing the Buchanan garage, a Downtown eyesore and hazard to public safety that has become a symbol of bad government. This should be a breakthrough, but it’s not. 

Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s proposed solution to divert $3.5 million from dedicated funds for the courthouse and jail to fix this garage isn’t smart money. Plugging the hole this way is investing in more of the same. 

For starters, the economics of the plan don’t make sense. Historically, the garage generates less than $100,000 per year in revenue, meaning it would take more than 35 years to generate enough revenue to pay back the initial investment. And that’s without factoring in any operating expenses. This doesn’t sound like the kind of plan anyone who believes the government should run like a business should be supporting.

Industry best practices suggest the parish should be spending $500 per year per space on operations and maintenance, according to parking consultant Gerard Giosa. For the Buchanan garage’s 344 spaces, that would mean $172,000 annually, or almost $80,000 more than the $90,000 this garage typically generates in revenue.

That’s a big problem. If this garage can’t generate enough revenue to pay for its own operations and maintenance, it either means it’ll have to be subsidized with tax dollars — which the parish doesn’t have to spare — or it won’t get properly maintained, which is exactly what caused this structure to fall into disrepair in the first place. The third option is to raise prices, but that doesn’t necessarily help when the garage’s biggest customers are funded with parish tax dollars.

So the math on the deal just doesn’t add up. Even more significantly, if the Parish Council moves forward with Guillory’s plan, it will zero out the courthouse complex fund balance. That fund pays to maintain and improve the courthouse and subsidizes the millage dedicated to maintain and improve the jail, both of which are in bad shape. 

In next year’s proposed budget, the courthouse complex fund is projected to end the year with a balance of $3.8 million. But in addition to the $3.5 million for this garage, the Parish Council is also being asked to approve spending another $300,000 from this fund to cover the cost of housing parish prisoners. That means if this garage repair plan is approved and nothing else changes, the courthouse complex fund will have no more savings to tap into moving forward.

Neither the courthouse nor the jail will have any money available to handle unexpected expenses. If there are any cost overruns or unforeseen repairs needed, the courthouse and jail will either have to cut expenses from already lean budgets or the Parish Council will have to squeeze money out of a parish general fund that’s already threadbare. Either that or the parish will have to consider taking on debt to fix whatever breaks — or not fix it at all. 

Zeroing out this fund balance will also force cuts to 2022’s budget for the courthouse and jail. Over the last few years, those budgets have been propped up by dipping into the courthouse complex fund’s savings.

This dynamic is especially threatening to the courthouse, which has languished for years as its funds have been diverted to prop up the jail. Now the parish is stuck with a 65-year-old courthouse with asbestos in the ceiling, a roof that leaks on public records despite having been repaired in recent years, and facilities that are totally inadequate to the needs of a modern courthouse. 

So not only is repairing this garage arguably an unsustainable investment, it’s also going to put our jail and courthouse finances in a very precarious state.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear alternative to Guillory’s proposal. His predecessor first tried selling the garage to the city and then tried redeveloping the property altogether, but both efforts failed. 

Despite the lack of attractive options, I still have serious reservations about moving forward with this plan as is. If the Parish Council wants to seriously consider spending this particular money on this particular project, it would be in the parish’s best interests if council members address two major questions first:

  • What will the business model be for this garage moving forward and how does the parish ensure that it has the funding needed to properly maintain it so that we don’t end up right back where we started?
  • What is the plan for protecting the operations and maintenance of the jail and courthouse so that we don’t put either at risk by zeroing out the courthouse complex fund balance?

If these two concerns can be resolved, then spending $3.5 million to fix this garage could make sense. But until then the benefits of fixing this garage don’t outweigh the substantial costs.