Anxiety over the prospect of losing $10 million in annual property taxes is roiling relations between Lafayette officials and District Attorney Keith Stutes, who relies on the city-parish for annual funding.
Stutes reacted harshly Tuesday as the City-Parish Council debated delaying a vote on an annual funding agreement with Stutes’ office.
The debate Tuesday occurred a full week after the start of the fiscal year, and Stutes told council members he was previously unaware there was any hesitation toward passing the agreement. Stutes had spent several months negotiating with the administration on a new funding structure, he said, and he had appeared before the council a half dozen times to field questions.
“I have jumped through an enormous number of hoops based on the representations that I have received from your staff, from the mayor-president,” Stutes told council members.
The council eventually voted 6-3 to approve the agreement but not before an initial vote to defer passed 5-4.
The new funding arrangement with Stutes’ office is potentially a win-win, at least in theory.
The old arrangement was a cost-reimbursement structure, which required the district attorney to periodically submit expense reimbursements and seek council approval for salary adjustments. The new model parcels out the budgeted amount, in this case $2.6 million, in guaranteed monthly payments, allowing the district attorney to use the money how he or she sees fit.
“This kind of gives him the liberty to manage his office how he sees fit,” City-Parish Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said in an interview.
"We just have to write a check once a month, and we won’t be getting purchase orders and invoice; we won’t have to write payroll checks,” Toups said.
Stutes’ office operated in 2016 on $5.3 million, with about 60 percent of that coming from the parishes of Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion, which comprise the 15th Judicial District, according to the office’s most recent audit report. Yet a number of Stutes’ staff were on the city-parish's payroll under the old structure, in which the parish pays for certain positions within dedicated line items.
The “hoops” Stutes referred to when speaking before the council involve shifting his staff from city-parish payroll to his own, which he said in an interview Wednesday was “quite an ordeal” because it involves new insurance and retirement forms, among other things.
The new arrangement locks in the amount the council budgets at the start of the fiscal year, meaning neither the district attorney nor the council can deviate as the year wears on. That contractual detail likely wouldn’t raise hackles in a stable fiscal environment with relatively reliable revenue expectations. But the pre-Nov. 18 environment for Lafayette Consolidated Government is anything but stable and reliable.
Parishwide, voters will decide Nov. 18 whether to renew millages for the courthouse complex and the parish jail that together generate about $10 million annually. State law obligates Lafayette Parish to pay for those facilities, and doing so without the millages would require tapping the meager parish general fund.
The parish general fund is about $12 million and pays for a variety of parish services, including the district attorney's office. Losing the millages would compel officials to rework the parish budget, scratching away from the courthouse, jail and all general-fund services — including fire services and some public works in unincorporated areas — to make up the difference. Voters already rejected the millages earlier this year, and a second failure this month would guarantee service disruptions in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Thus the consternation of District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque, who moved to defer voting on the agreement to the next council meeting Nov. 21.
“We are tying ourselves to the budget irrevocably moving forward, and at this point, I am not comfortable making that kind of commitment until I hear from the voters in Lafayette Parish,” Conque said at the council meeting, to Stutes’ chagrin.
State law says district attorneys across the state, except in Orleans, are “entitled” to an expense allowance to cover certain employee salaries and other office expenses and that parish governing authorities are “authorized” to supply that allowance.
Conque was at a conference and unavailable to speak Wednesday, but he hinted in a series of email exchanges that he didn’t necessarily agree with a general understanding that parishes must pay district attorney expenses.
“We can no longer consider doing business as usual. We must review all expenses for which the parish is not obligated to pay,” Conque wrote, adding in a separate email that benefits afforded to the District Attorney’s Office “are subject to the parish’s ability and willingness to fund.”
Stutes last year sued the city-parish for, among other things, attempting to cover the district attorney’s expenses from a “deficient” fund, which he claimed amounted to “an unreasonable and arbitrary refusal and failure” by the city-parish to live up to its obligations. The suit was dismissed at Stutes’ behest when the city-parish resolved the underlying issues, according to court records.
Conque demurred when asked if he disagreed with the notion that the parish must pay the district attorney and said he applauds Stutes’ “willingness to work with us and identifying who pays for what.” Conque added he generally supports the new funding arrangement, and his move to defer was from an “abundance of caution” related to the upcoming ballot.
City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott on Tuesday cautioned council members that executing the new funding agreement combined with failure of the millages likely would lead to one of two outcomes. Stutes might recognize “we are heading for a train wreck” and agree to work toward a new mutual agreement. The other scenario, Escott said, is that Stutes “sues us in enforcing that agreement.”
Stutes said in an interview he desires a good-faith relationship with his city-parish counterparts and that he has consistently done his part in that regard. The $2.6 million in the CEA, for example, is $300,000 short of what Stutes needs for a fully staffed office, he said. But he also noted that amount was agreed upon after the millage initially failed.
“I think panic just simply set in,” Stutes said, referring to the council’s near failure to pass the agreement Tuesday. “But regardless of what happens with the millage election, this budget was already agreed to with that in mind.”