Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes on Tuesday dropped a lawsuit he filed to block Lafayette city-parish government from cutting more than $500,000 from his budget.
The dismissal came as a judge was preparing to hear arguments on whether to void the City-Parish Council’s vote last week to approve the cut.
Stutes and city-parish government have locked horns for several months over what District Attorney’s Office expenses local government is legally mandated to pay, and the dismissal on Tuesday will not likely resolve the core issues.
The council’s vote last week was to cut the current year’s budget for the District Attorney’s Office, and it is unclear how Stutes, the city-parish administration and council members will deal with the funding questions as preparations for next year’s budget begin in July, considering the parish general fund is struggling after months of weak sales tax collections.
City-Parish Council Chairman Jay Castille said he and others will meet with the District Attorney’s Office to hash out budget concerns going forward.
“They want to sit down and start working through the process,” Castille said.
Stutes could not be reached for comment after Tuesday’s hearing.
The budget dispute came to a head earlier this year when tax revenue started sliding soon after Stutes demanded city-parish government begin paying expenses that former District Attorney Mike Harson had covered with internal discretionary funds.
Stutes, who took office in 2015, argues city-parish government is required by law to cover all reasonable costs for his office and that Harson should never have covered the expenses at issue, which are largely for salaries and related benefits.
Council members have argued city-parish government simply doesn’t have the money to foot the bill.
Stutes said last week he could cover the loss of city-parish funding with discretionary funds for the near future, essentially continuing Harson’s practice.
“How long we can do that? That I can’t tell you,” Stutes said.
The financial strain for city-parish government is not on the budget as a whole but rather the “parish” side of the split budget, where the council draws funding for the District Attorney’s Office because it is considered a parishwide expense.
Despite the consolidation of the once-separate governments for city of Lafayette and Lafayette Parish, the budgets for the city and parish are separate, with distinct expenses and taxes.
The city side of the budget is relatively healthy, but the parish side always has been weak and has taken a particularly hard hit as the downturn in the oil patch continues to slash sales tax revenue.
Stutes contends city-parish government should look to the “city” side of the budget to help fund his office, but city-parish officials have balked, arguing they are legally barred from using tax revenue collected only within the city to fund a parishwide expense.
The funding dispute with the district attorney has the potential to flare up in court again.
City-parish government filed a counterclaim against Stutes, asking a judge to rule on what share of funding for the District Attorney’s Office Lafayette should pay.
The 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office serves Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, and city-parish attorneys questioned in court filings whether Lafayette Parish has been paying more than its fair share.
“We just want to make sure no money is crossing (parish) boundaries,” Castille said.
Stutes defended the current method of splitting expenses among the three parishes, saying it is based on the resource demands of each parish.