The dumpster fire in progress at the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging can spread across Louisiana unless Louisiana leaders finally reform the elderly affairs system.

Baton Rouge's COA serves as the worst-case scenario of what can happen without good safeguards against inefficiency and ethical lapses among public servants. Over the past two decades, scandal has shadowed this agency’s operation, which receives a mix of public and private funds to provide services to the elderly. Ostensibly, each Council on Aging is regulated by federal law and overseen by state and local governments. The state charters one per parish.

Controversy keeps flaring over the Baton Rouge COA and its executive director, Tasha Clark-Amar. Since she assumed her post in 2011, Amar has followed the agency’s past practice of running a deficit, aggravated by spending more than half the council's money on administrative expenses. According to 2013 data, it also had significantly higher average unit expenditures in two of four major service areas, with one about average and the other’s data not reported.

Despite that undistinguished record, last year a new state law began diverting car rental tax receipts to the agency. Parish voters also approved, starting next year, a 2.25-mil property tax dedication that requires no Metro Council annual review — an almost unprecedented arrangement nationally that more than doubles its annual budget. Worse, a pending legislative audit looks poised to confirm that the agency engaged in illegal campaign practices to help pass the tax.

To top it all off, Amar has become embroiled in an dispute over the estate of a former agency client who recently died. Amar was tapped to manage the estate in the client's will, and she stood to receive in trustee payments over 20 years almost 40 percent of the estate's assumed $314,000 value, which legal experts call extraordinarily generous and ethically problematic. The deceased’s family has presented credible evidence that the will drawn up involved coercion of a person perhaps not mentally sound. In the wake of public outcry about the arrangement, Amar said she wanted to withdraw from the arrangement. Last week, a judge removed her from managing the estate.   

Such problems shouldn't surprise anyone given the way the state organizes aging services delivery. A 2014 legislative audit revealed a decentralized, duplicative system that scarcely coordinates services or tries to use the best management and fiscal practices. Any supervision of these agencies that does occur comes mainly from local governments, leaving lots of room for abuse in parishes with relaxed oversight.

Governors may change, but not the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs’ indifference, if not defensiveness, regarding ways to do better. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ appointee to lead it, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal staff holdover Karen Ryder, has expressed no special concern over the ongoing turmoil in Baton Rouge — perhaps because officials who ally themselves with Edwards have provided vocal public backing of Amar and the agency.

That hasn’t stopped GOP state Rep. Steve Carter from introducing HB 199 for the upcoming 2017 regular legislative session. It would remake the EBR COA governing board with an eye toward advancing greater accountability and fiscal and ethical transparency.

Carter and his colleagues should be more ambitious. Rather than treat the symptom, they should address the disease by changing an agency culture that doesn't do enough to discourage waste,, empire-building, and wide disparities of service for clients.

Legislation making COAs report to a handful of Area Agencies on Aging (many COAs individually act as separate AAAs), mandating financial and ethical training for COA board members, improving the funds distribution formula (but keeping the $100,000 cap) that especially helps rural parishes, and eliminating service provision done elsewhere (such as through Medicaid’s Community Choice waiver program) would do for a start. Continued benign neglect only invites further trouble.

 

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.