COLUMN: Parish government isn’t ‘living within its means’

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

As Mayor-President Josh Guillory beats the drum about local government needing to live within its means, all attention has been focused on the city of Lafayette’s spending. But if we’re going to engage in a robust and honest conversation about right-sizing government, we have to address the financial catastrophe that is parish finances. 

Put frankly, pretty much every part of parish government is underfunded: roads, drainage, parks, corrections, fire protection, its share of LCG operations. The list goes on and on. The parish general fund has been on life support for years now. And it’s projected to end next year with $50,000 in the bank, virtually a rounding error in government finance. 

The parish has been able to limp along at least in part because of subsidies it receives from city government. But with the city’s finances now strained, it’s time for the parish to get serious about living within its own means. 

So, what would it look like if the parish lived within its means? 

It would stop building new roads

As of last summer, the parish had a roadwork backlog north of $60 million. The parish road millage only collects $9.7 million annually, and of that $7.4 million is budgeted in next year’s parish capital improvement program. So if we could freeze all parish roads in time — which we can’t — it would still take about eight years for the parish to work through its backlog. Every year new developments come online in unincorporated Lafayette that expect the parish to take over responsibility for maintaining their roads. Over time that places additional burden on an underfunded parish roads millage, which is a primary reason the parish has such a significant backlog of roadwork in the first place. 

If the parish were to live within its means when it comes to roads, it would convert paved roads to gravel — which have a lower total cost-of-ownership than paved roads — reject adopting roads from any new developments, close bridges when they fall into disrepair, and stop all city-funded road projects at the city line. 

Neighborhoods would keep flooding

The parish millage dedicated to drainage will collect $7.6 million next year. We don’t really know how much it costs to properly maintain our drainage infrastructure or how much we should be spending to increase its capacity to handle runoff from paved cane fields, along with frequent and more intense rain events. It’s been four years since the 2016 floods, and we still don’t have a comprehensive plan in place. What we do know is that the parish has spent every dollar it’s collected: Its drainage fund is budgeted to end next year with $32,875. The parish also rededicated $28 million from an assortment of other dedicated fund balances for drainage over the last few years. But that hasn’t been enough. 

Increasing the capacity of the parish’s drainage infrastructure would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars more, which the parish doesn’t have. In fact, in this year’s capital outlay program, the parish is budgeted to spend just $400,000 on drainage. So until the parish raises the taxes it collects for drainage or secures a boatload of money from the state or federal government, we need to start figuring out which parts of the parish we’re willing to let flood.

It would close two floors of the parish jail

The parish jail is funded by a dedicated millage, but that millage hasn’t generated sufficient revenue to operate the jail for years. To make up for that shortfall, the millage dedicated to the courthouse has had to chip in $22 million along with $7 million from the parish general fund. As a result of the jail not living within its means, the parish courthouse is falling apart and the parish general fund is effectively broke. 

Right-sizing the jail to its millage requires drastic action, like shutting down two of its five floors. Currently the jail has 814 beds. Closing two floors would remove 300 beds from the facility. In Guillory’s proposed budget, the courthouse millage is projected to collect $5.5 million but spend $6.8 million, creating a $1.3 million deficit that will lower the courthouse fund balance to $3.8 million. Meanwhile, the courthouse is in dire need of repairs and improvements, and there’s no money to fix the Buchanan garage that serves the courthouse complex. So sooner rather than later the jail is going to be forced to live within its means because there will simply be no money left to subsidize it from anywhere else.

Parks would be shut down

There are seven parks outside of Lafayette city limits funded by parish general fund dollars and city tax dollars whenever those parish dollars fall short. Additionally, the parish has no dedicated parks millage to support operating the parks; only the city does. Using Guillory’s philosophy, these parks should either be shut down and sold off immediately, or the parish needs to find partners to take over the responsibility of operating and maintaining them. In fairness, outsourcing to other groups and cities is underway. Deals have been struck with the cities of Youngsville and Broussard to take over Foster and Arceneaux parks, respectively. And Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin has announced his intent to find partners to operate all parish parks. But in the meantime, the parish will not be contributing any money to operate these parks, according to the proposed budget. That means come Nov. 1, utilities should be shut off and the grass should stop getting cut at these parks if the parish is to live within its means. 

Government work would be on pen and paper

Next year, LCG’s IT department is budgeted to spend $10.9 million, $6 million for operations and $4.9 million for capital outlay — buying stuff like computers and other IT equipment. Of that $6 million for operations, the parish pays 16%, or $956,000. The parish pays nothing for capital outlay. That dynamic has been true for years as the IT department has relied on city sales tax money for all of its capital outlay needs. So if parish government were to live within its means, any work on parish affairs should be done with pen and paper because all the computers are paid for with city dollars. At 16%, the parish should be ponying up $784,000 for its share of the IT capital budget, but that’s something it can ill afford. Living within its means would mean dusting off its typewriters and breaking out the abacuses. 

It would get one day a week from the mayor-president

The parish pays for just under one-fifth of the budget of the mayor-president’s salary and office. So the mayor-president and his office’s staff should only spend one day per work week dealing with parish-related issues. Every minute they spend beyond that is giving the parish more attention than it pays for. City Council members tried to press this point during budget review, arguing that administration costs should be split 50/50. (Previous administrations apportioned it by population.) But CFO Lorrie Toups pushed back, saying the parish could not afford to pay any more of the administration’s expenses, without breaking the bank. The mayor-president’s attention is a luxury the parish government can’t afford. 

Some areas would not have fire protection

While the parish general fund pays between $1.4 million to $1.8 million for fire protection in unincorporated Lafayette, that hasn’t been enough to fully reimburse the costs that city fire departments from Lafayette and other cities in the parish incur when they respond to emergencies outside of their jurisdictions. That reality got bad enough that some city fire departments stopped responding to some types of emergencies

Two years ago, the residents of unincorporated Lafayette had the opportunity to approve a new tax that would fund proper fire protection, but it failed. Voters will have a chance to rededicate 70% of the CREATE millage to fire protection in unincorporated Lafayette, but that will free up just under $400,000 per year. The last City-Parish Council identified millions of dollars per year in needs to provide adequate service. A right-sized fire budget would mean some parts of unincorporated Lafayette wouldn’t receive any fire protection coverage, or all of unincorporated Lafayette would get inadequate coverage. That’s what parish government can realistically afford.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds

Here’s the thing: Even if all of these measures were taken, the parish would still be in dire financial straits. That’s because all these changes would do is right-size the parish’s services to its revenues; they wouldn’t actually improve the parish’s finances and, of course, this would mean devastating cuts in public services most people agree are essential. 

And the cuts could go even further. LCG operates on a financial double standard. LCG’s fiscal policy is to maintain a fund balance of at least 20% of its general fund expenditures. But that policy is only applied to the city’s general fund. The parish’s general fund is projected to end next year with a fund balance of less than 0.5%. If it were held to the same standard as the city general fund, it should have a fund balance of almost $2.5 million. To achieve that would require even more cuts to basic services. 

For as much attention as the city’s gotten for living beyond its means, the reality is that it’s the parish that has outspent its means. To make ends meet, parish government has kicked infrastructure cans down the road and relied on millions in subsidies from the city. Now that the city is facing its own financial challenges, we have arrived at that can down the road. The time has come to face up to the reality: The parish isn’t living within its means.