Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: LCG’s budget process is a bad deal for the city

Empty chairs in the council meeting room

Normally, Lafayette Consolidated Government’s annual budget-making process is a big deal to me. When the budget drops in late July, I pore over it and spend the next few weeks helping the City and Parish councils and the public better understand it by writing columns, sending emails to councilmembers, and answering questions whenever I can — all with the goal of improving how our government spends our money. 

In other words, I get into the weeds. This year, however, I took a step back. A different picture came into view: how we make budgets doesn’t work, especially for city taxpayers.

In theory the City Council has sole authority over how the city of Lafayette’s money is spent. But in reality that’s not at all what’s happening. Instead, city residents are disenfranchised by a budget-making process that prevents the City Council from fulfilling the duties we elected them to perform. Let me show you how.

The mayor-president’s veto is too powerful

It’s pretty much a custom now that the mayor-president can circumvent the council to spend money by using a veto. 

Two years ago, Mayor-President Josh Guillory claimed the right to use his veto to authorize spending $21 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan funding, essentially overruling five City Council members who voted against his funding plan by way of a budget amendment. He vetoed the amendment, but the council could muster only three votes to overturn his veto.

Guillory is not the first to use that tactic. I have argued that this interpretation of the mayor-president’s veto authority is wrong, and so has the Louisiana attorney general. Vetoes are intended to be a check on the council, not a way to authorize funding. 

This reality isn’t likely to change. So it doesn’t really matter what amendments the majority of the City Council approves during this budget-making process they’re about to wrap up. Because if the mayor-president can convince just two City Council members to back his veto, he can disregard the will of the City Council to spend city dollars.

The Parish Council is too powerful

Making this situation worse is that LCG’s budget commingles city and parish dollars to pay for a lot of expenses. If parish money is involved, the Parish Council gets a say in that budget item.

For example, when Guillory unilaterally laid off dozens of parks and recreation employees in 2020, the City Council tried to pass an ordinance to keep those employees on the city’s payroll. 

At the time, parish government paid a small portion of the parks and recreation budget. So the City Council effectively needed the Parish Council’s permission to spend city money on city parks. And they needed four out of five votes on the Parish Council to override the mayor-president’s veto. But the City Council never even got to that point because the ordinance to restore funding for these jobs failed to get a second on the Parish Council to even be discussed and voted on.

You could argue that this reality cuts both ways, but you’re not comparing apples to apples. For one thing, the mayor-president is elected by the entire parish, not just the city. And with more people living outside the city than inside, the M-P has a political incentive to prioritize parish needs over the city’s. 

Essentially, the politics of consolidation don’t match up with the budget’s reality. It’s imbalanced, and that imbalance rarely favors city interests. 

Shared costs aren’t fairly shared

Allocated costs have been a bone of contention for almost a decade now. There has been no serious attempt at determining the fairest way to split up how the city and parish share the costs of consolidation. 

Does it make sense that the city should pay for 80% of the cost of running the offices of the City and Parish councils? There are five members on both councils. There are twice as many constituents of the Parish Council. But the agendas of the City Council tend to be bigger and more complicated. 

Does it make sense that the city pays for 80% of the mayor-president’s office? The mayor-president is elected by the whole parish, not just the city. While the business of city government is larger than the business of parish government, splitting costs this way means parish government pays just $24,000 per year on the parish president’s salary. Yet city residents don’t necessarily get 80% of the time or representation from the mayor-president. 

Does it make sense that the city pays for 100% of the capital outlay for LCG’s IT department? The city’s IT needs are significantly higher than the parish’s. But all of this IT equipment is used to serve both the city and parish side of LCG. So why shouldn’t the parish pay its fair share?

These are just the beginning of a very complex rabbit hole our elected officials have largely avoided. 

This year, City Councilman Glenn Lazard has pressed the issue during budget hearings. But even if a majority of the City Council wants to make changes, they’ll need a supermajority to overcome a veto and they’ll need a majority if not a supermajority of the Parish Council’s support as well.

While at first that might just seem like normal political compromising, it creates a deeper issue. What happens if the City Council wants to spend less city money on the mayor-president’s office, for example, and spend more on police salaries? If the mayor-president disagrees with that change, there’s no way to make that change without a supermajority vote on both councils.

We’re about to see how the politics of that decision play out in this budget cycle. 

Costs aren’t properly scrutinized

This topic could be its own column, but let’s boil this down to three main points.

First, the majority of new capital spending proposed by the mayor-president in the annual budget-making process receives little to no scrutiny. There are dozens of new capital spending line items in the proposed budget every year. Some of these are discussed during budget hearings, but many aren’t. And budget hearings tend to be so boring that whatever discussions do happen are superficial at best. So as a result, spending is often approved with nothing more than a couple of words to describe what that money is going to actually do.

Second, mayor-presidents often try to slip in major budget changes outside of the annual budget-making process to avoid having to deal with the real impact of their spending. A perfect example is how Guillory proposed pay raises for the police as a mid-year budget amendment rather than as part of his proposed budget for next year. If approved, that new pay plan would cost the city millions more every year, but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at his proposed budget. 

Third, there’s a ton of spending not accounted for in these proposed budgets. For example, all of the new maintenance costs associated with the massive spending on new drainage projects, or the subsidies that new superparks at Brown and Moore Parks will require, or the potential fines and settlements that Guillory’s drainage suits have incurred. While it’s not possible to capture all of these potential costs in a proposed budget, the lack of scrutiny on these liabilities means councils are effectively building budgets with incomplete information. 

These problems can be fixed

By and large all of the issues I list in this column can be addressed if there’s sufficient political will. And if all parties are willing to be reasonable and work together for the common good.

Mayor-presidents could simply decide to stop trying to use a dubious legal loophole to approve spending without the council’s approval. Or someone could sue LCG to get the courts to rule on the legality of this maneuver.

The Parish Council could simply decide to respect the wishes of the City Council members on how they want to spend city money. And choose to vote in favor with the City Council’s majority. Or we could push further to split spending in the budget into separate city and parish line items so that no funds are commingled and both councils maintain their own fiscal autonomy. 

The administration and both councils could agree to engage in a serious attempt to re-examine the allocation schedule to identify fairer ways to split costs, or by breaking all of these costs into separate city and parish line items, we could get rid of the allocation schedule entirely and each council could decide on its own how much it wants to contribute to each part of shared government. 

Then, on the scrutiny front, the councils could refuse to approve major new capital spending during the annual budget-making process, and instead require the administration to present each item as separate mid-year budget amendments to allow for more discussion. 

The councils could also refuse to approve any mid-year budget amendments to new operational spending like police raises but instead force those changes to be included in the annual budget-making process so the full impact of that new ongoing spending can be accounted for. 

And the councils could start scrutinizing major new proposed spending more intensely, perhaps by hiring a budget analyst to calculate the total lifetime costs of new projects so we can start to understand the true cost of initiatives beyond the initial construction.

All of these changes could be done if there’s the will to do them. We can have a government that is responsive to its constituents and responsible and transparent in its spending. We just have to care enough and get engaged enough and get loud enough to demand that our elected officials fix LCG’s broken budget-making process. If we demand better, we can get better.