Over the last few weeks there’s been a controversy brewing around how parish government funds itself. Unfortunately, political gamesmanship is obscuring financial realities.
The Parish Council has essentially reversed itself and is on the verge of leaving millions in revenue on the table by not preserving the current maximum allowable tax rates.
This comes after council members approved higher tax rates just weeks ago, later having a change of heart after Mayor-President Josh Guillory vetoed the rates, saying that he doesn’t believe taxes should be increased without a vote of the people and calling for tax reform.
Putting aside the mayor-president’s political grandstanding, the council’s justification in forgoing all that money is that parish government doesn’t need it. That raises a deeper question: What are the consequences of the Parish Council not collecting all of the property tax revenue to which it’s legally entitled?
For one thing, we’ll continue to deal with reduced government services.
Take the library, for instance, which faces yet another financial blow after a long string of revenue losses over the last few years.
If set at the maximum allowable rate, the library system would be able to collect an additional $462,000 per year. That’s more than it saved when the libraries ceased Sunday operations (and Saturdays at Clifton Chenier) so that they could free up operational funding for a new Northside library.
To give this some context, if this millage were set at its highest allowable rate, it would cost someone who owns a $300,000 home roughly $5 per year. In exchange for that increase, the libraries could reopen on Sundays and still have some extra leftover to help offset the costs of operating a new Northside library.
Meanwhile, the Lafayette Parish Public Health Unit was counting on the $200,000 in increased annual revenue to allow it to increase nurses’ salaries to help address staffing shortfalls.
But instead of improving our parish’s ability to deal with public health issues and care for our community’s most vulnerable people, we’re saving the owner of a $300,000 home roughly $2 per year.
Some might argue that libraries and public health aren’t essential functions of local government, but virtually no one would claim dealing with drainage isn’t. And this move will hurt our ability to address ongoing drainage needs.
The Parish Council has the opportunity to increase funding for stormwater management by $120,000 per year by setting that millage to its maximum. While that amount of money won’t “fix drainage,” every dollar matters when it comes to protecting property.
But instead, Guillory and the Parish Council thinks we should protect taxpayers by saving them what amounts to about $1 per year.
And through all this, Guillory has been either willfully wrongheaded or just plain ignorant about the consequences of his actions. Keep in mind, because of the timing of his veto, he pushed parish government to the edge of economic ruin.
“The bottom line is this veto does not take away any funding. This is paramount,” he declared. “This is a fact. That is an undisputed statement you can not dispute. That statement is a fact.”
His assertion was, in fact, not a fact. Without an ordinance to set property tax rates, those millages fall to zero. So his veto effectively eliminated all of the $67 million in parish property tax revenue for next year. The council had to take swift action under political duress to pass an ordinance setting taxes.
While I suspect the mayor-president’s veto and call for tax reform is motivated mostly by his bid for re-election, it also speaks to the continued inability of the parish’s elected officials to prioritize the long-term good of the parish over scoring short-term political points.
This isn’t new. For decades, the Parish Council has left money on the table, and found itself in bad financial shape because of it. A windfall of Covid money has created the false impression that we’re on sound financial footing, when the same old mistakes still haunt us.
The key example of this reality is when the council chose not to set the property tax rates to their maximum for the parish jail, courthouse, and juvenile detention center back in 1996.
Here are the results of their lack of political courage:
That’s a little more than $1.2 million of annual revenue the parish could be collecting to better fund our public safety infrastructure. But our elected officials instead ignored the full consequences of their actions.
As a result, the parish has a jail, a courthouse and a juvenile detention facility that are substandard, falling apart and costing us dearly in annual maintenance because we don’t have enough money to actually fix their problems. Instead, we continue wasting money cobbling together band-aids.
If Lafayette wants to be a great community, then we have to stop allowing elected officials to prioritize short-term political gamesmanship over the long-term health of our community.
Their actions have real consequences to our lives. And yet we’re not really even having a serious discussion about what those consequences are.
At no point during this manufactured property tax controversy has there been any real analysis over the cost of foregoing that revenue. Instead we’re left with chest-thumping politicians boasting about how they’re protecting taxpayers.
Meanwhile, our libraries will still be closed on Sundays. Our public health unit will remain understaffed. Our drainage efforts won’t be supported fully. And our public safety infrastructure will continue crumbling.
Lafayette deserves better.