Oil patch slump slicing through Lafayette parish government budget: ‘We have to stop the bleeding’ _lowres

 

The “parish” side of Lafayette city-parish government is going broke.

The badly bruised oil and gas sector has sent sales tax collections in unincorporated areas of the parish tumbling, and revenue is expected to be roughly $2 million below budget expectations, or 33 percent off, when the fiscal year wraps up on Oct. 31.

Lafayette Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups told members of the City-Parish Council’s Finance Committee on Thursday that the issue must be addressed ASAP because the parish budget, which despite city-parish consolidation is still separate from the city’s, may not have enough money to cover expenses through the end of the year.

“Solving the problem is not going to happen overnight, but at some point, we have to stop the bleeding,” Toups said.

The downturn in the oil patch has hurt tax collections for the city as well, but the parish budget was already tight and receives a big chunk of its revenue from a 1-cent sales tax drawn from unincorporated areas that rely heavily on industry for revenue.

The problem has been compounded by 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes’ stance that his office should no longer reimburse the parish’s general fund for more than $650,000 in salary expenses.

Stutes cites a state law requiring parish government to pay all the expenses of his office.

Former District Attorney Mike Harson had paid the salary reimbursements for several years, but Stutes, who took office in 2015, wrote in a recent letter to city-parish government that the reimbursements are “excessive, gratuitous and unauthorized.”

Stutes said Thursday he is not against reimbursing some expense but has had difficulty getting city-parish officials to the table to negotiate an agreement.

The dispute has been festering for more than a year, and council members on Thursday suggested stripping some district attorney positions from the budget if the reimbursements stop, though the legal ramifications of that strategy are unclear.

Stutes said he appreciates the budget predicament for city-parish government but feels his office should not bear such a heavy financial burden for a problem he did not cause.

“It’s not fair for the DA’s Office to subsidize this problem,” Stutes said.

He also said the “city” side of city-parish government, which is not suffering the dramatic sales declines seen on the “parish” side, shares in the obligation to fund the District Attorney’s Office.

City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux asked staff to determine what the minimum requirements are for funding the District Attorney’s Office and expenses for judges, some of which also come from the parish general fund.

“Sometimes you just have to regress, regroup and get to where you are manageable again,” Boudreaux said.

Even if the District Attorney’s Office continued to pay salary reimbursements and if judges generated more of their own funding through fines or other means, the parish side of the budget would still face an uncertain future.

“The $2 million in sales tax is really hard to swallow, but it is what it is,” Toups said.

The city-parish administration plans to begin seriously exploring short-term and long-term solutions, Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux said in an interview after Thursday’s committee meeting.

Robideaux said the parish side of the budget faces dim prospects of ever having a stable tax base, in part because business developments that produce tax revenue are generally annexed by Lafayette or other municipalities.

“It’s heading to the point of crisis,” he said.