DONALDSONVILLE — Ascension Parish government's auditors say the parish ended 2016 flush with cash despite having spent more than $12 million from its reserves on flood recovery last year.
Despite the flood expenses, the parish was able to boost its total reserves by $5.4 million last year to $192.7 million, but more than $105 million of that surplus is set aside by voters or by Parish Council spending priorities for recreation, parish jail expenses, drainage, fire protection or health and mental health services.
Auditor Tommy LeJeune, of Faulk and Winkler, told the Parish Council recently that continued strong sales tax collections have helped build the surplus. The past three years of collections have hovered around $55 million, about $15 million per year more than what the parish took in for 2012.
At the same time, the total surplus has risen from $147.5 million in 2012 to more than $192.7 million in 2016 — also an increase of about $45 million.
"So, 15 times three is $45 million, so the whole point of it is you're not spending up to the high point of sales tax," LeJeune said. "So basically what you have been able to do is experience a really lucrative time from a sales tax collection perspective and you have been able to bank it."
He added that eventual reimbursement for last year's flood expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would only further improve those surpluses. Since the audit was finished, the parish has received about $7.3 million in reimbursements.
LeJeune made his comments Aug. 3 at the Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville as he reviewed the 2016 audit for the council. While the audit detailed the parish's strong financial status, it also uncovered a number of findings in the parish U.S. Housing and Urban Development public housing program and in travel, personnel and pay, and Lamar-Dixon Expo Center policies and procedures.
The Parish Council members have asked the parish administration to update them in a coming meeting about its progress in responding to many of these findings.
LeJeune's report of the parish's flush accounts prompted only some mixed reaction from the council. The parish is trying to fund major road improvements without a new tax and developing further spending on drainage improvements in light of last year's floods. Part of the road plan, Move Ascension, counts on a new debt issue and big part of the reserves in the parish road fund.
While the parish has continued to see population growth, the strong sales tax collections have come mostly during a period of expansion in the parish's industrial sector, the majority contributor to sales tax collections. That expansion has slowed some more recently.
After LeJeune's initial report on the surpluses, Council Chairman Bill Dawson sought to downplay their size, noting that only about $28.6 million is fully discretionary and could be spent for any purpose. He questioned LeJeune about whether that discretionary reserve was too high or low to ensure sound savings for unexpected expenses.
LeJeune said governments typically want to have a savings equivalent to three to six months of annual spending. He said the $28 million fits within the lower end of that range.
"I don't think it's too low. I think it's a good comfortable number," LeJeune said.
But later, Councilwoman Teri Casso said that every year she hears the audit, she thinks, "My God, we have money. We are in a wonderful situation.
"We are not in the savings business. We need to be providing services, and so I look forward to next year seeing that we have spent the taxpayer's money, and if we're not going spend it, we need to give it back to them or quit collecting," she said. "It is time to spend it."
Auditors found the parish had about $27.8 million in a capital surplus fund for drainage and another $22.5 million for roads. The $40 million to $45 million Move Ascension program plans on tapping that reserve for nearly half its spending.
"It’s a nice sum of money," LeJeune said of the road reserve, "but it's probably not an amount that solves all the parish's traffic woes."