Shaky finances, understaffing and spiraling violence are among Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber’s reasons for seeking a new sales tax that could result in major budget boosts for his agency and the Lafayette Police Department.

The Sheriff’s Office is facing financial challenges, but Garber has provided few details to justify the funding levels he is seeking. And while the sheriff is proposing to split the proceeds with the police department, he hasn’t consulted with police brass to assess the needs of the city police department.

Garber has instead collaborated with the Police Association of Lafayette, a union for city police officers, which has joined the sheriff in promoting the sales tax proposal to voters.

Garber and the police union have cited FBI recommendations to illustrate their claims of manpower shortages, but the bureau doesn’t make recommendations when it comes to local law enforcement staffing. The per capita violent crime rate in Lafayette, meanwhile, is among the lowest in the state.

That’s no shining distinction, since Louisiana is one of the most violent states in the country, and no one would mistake Lafayette for a quiet retirement community. Still, the notion that Lafayette is suffering a “critical shortage” of police officers, as the police union put it in a Facebook post earlier this month, has rankled some within city-parish government.

Councilman Jay Castille was blunt in expressed his feelings about that after a recent meeting of the police liaison committee.

“This shortage the union is talking about is a political ploy pertaining to the tax,” Castille said.

‘A lot of money’

Garber plans to ask voters on the Dec. 8 ballot to impose a ¾-cent parish-wide sales tax, yielding an estimated $38 million annually in new revenue. That would mean a reduction in the current one-cent tax collected only in unincorporated areas, and a new tax within the parish’s six municipalities.

The existing sales tax last year generated $4.7 million, a tiny portion of the Sheriff’s Office’s $63.5 million annual budget, with more than half of the agency's revenues coming from property taxes.

Garber would split annual collections within the City of Lafayette, meaning about $14 million would go to the police department. That translates to annual revenue increases of nearly 40 percent for both agencies.

“It would be a lot of money,” said Police Chief Toby Aguillard. “There’s numbers being thrown about right now.”

Aguillard is in an awkward position. The sheriff, who is an independent elected official, is conferring with his employees on a proposal with dramatic implications for his bottom line, but he doesn’t want to oppose anything that could help the department.

“I’d say it’s a bit unusual. I’ve never heard of it,” Aguillard said in an interview. “Not trying to discourage it.”

Ultimately the City-Parish Council controls the police department’s staffing levels and purse strings. If $14 million comes in from tax proceeds, the council could always reduce what the department receives in city funds by the same amount.

“The numbers he is citing are in my opinion arbitrary and not binding on the City-Parish Council,” said Councilman Bruce Conque, referring to Garber’s proposal. “It’s subject to review and discussion.”

Aguillard stressed that Garber has yet to reach an agreement with Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, a requirement to facilitate the revenue sharing, according to the draft ballot measure Garber has shared with city-parish officials. Robideaux has thus far declined comment.

“When we talk about where this tax is going, and what it’s going to do for us, until there’s an agreement, we don’t know,” Aguillard said. “If this goes all the way to the ballot with no written agreement between those two parties, then what happens if the tax passes?”

Garber presented his proposal to the City-Parish Council on June 19, and in doing so blamed his predecessor for saddling him with $37 million in liabilities. That’s a combination of $17 million in outstanding bonds and unfunded future pension and retiree benefit obligations, in relation to all the office’s assets.

Former Sheriff Mike Neustrom issued the bonds in 2012 to build the Public Safety Complex on Willow Street. They are to be repaid over 20 years at 2.75 percent interest rate, with annual debt service payments capped at $1.5 million. The payment last year amounted to two percent of the Sheriff’s Office’s revenue.

The Sheriff’s Office is barely treading water, even if the financial hole Garber cites comprises future obligations and a seemingly manageable payable debt. Total revenues were nearly even with expenditures, even though the audit report shows healthy cash reserves.

Chief Financial Officer Grayson Lacombe said the reserves shown in the midyear audit merely reflect the amount of property tax collections — most of which is received early in the year — still in the bank. Those reserves were depleted by the end of the year, Lacombe said.

Future pension and retiree benefits, while not payable in the present day, are a concern for an agency barely able to cover costs, Lacombe said.

“We are breaking even right now, so if we don’t do something to adjust our revenue we won’t be able to pay these benefits that will come due,” he said.

 Specifics?

Garber hasn’t explained in detail how all the new tax proceeds would be spent, although he has said it would fund 90 new law enforcement officers. The new personnel would be spread evenly among sheriff’s deputies and city police officers, he said.

Garber did outline in an interview his aims for 45 new sheriff’s deputies, which he said he wants to split between the enforcement and corrections division.

More deputies on the road would allow more time for patrolmen to conduct investigations, relieving pressure on the criminal investigations division, Garber said. More deputies in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center would make it safer, he said, and allow him to increase staffing in programs for diversion, work release and reentry.

“I had to cut staffing in those areas,” Garber said. “If I’m losing money in those programs I can’t maintain them at the robust levels I would like to.”

What the police department would do with 45 officers is anyone’s guess. Garber said the staffing goal was provided by the union, but that he had spoken separately with Aguillard about it.

Aguillard said he has spoken with Garber about the tax proposal briefly on only one occasion, and that Garber had already determined the revenue and staffing goals with the union.

Adding 45 new police officers would still leave most of the new revenue for other purposes, according to Aguillard’s estimate that one new position costs $120,000 per year, an amount that decreases over time. There was no discussion about what would happen with the remainder, he said.  

“Our conversation probably didn’t get into those specifics about what the money would be used for,” Aguillard said.

Retention is the biggest staffing concern for Aguillard at this time, he said, following a recent spate of departures and retirements. The losses have reduced the number of officers to 18 below the budgeted amount.

Additional revenue could be used to increase pay, which would entice officers to stay on the force longer, Aguillard said. The starting annual salary for an entry-level Lafayette police officer is $34,600, according to the Lafayette Consolidated Government website.

The department is currently budgeted for 280 officers, and another 10 will be added by the end of the summer. That’s a marked increase from the 261 that Aguillard said he started with upon his arrival a year and a half ago. He said his personal goal is to reach 300.

“I do think we need to add,” Aguillard said, referring to the budgeted number of officers. “I’m not certain we need 45.”

Garber said he couldn’t recall if his formulation of a unified sales tax proposal included the administration's input, or if he had spoken first with the union or the police brass.

“To say the chicken or the egg, what came first, I don’t know,” Garber said.

The police union has not responded to repeated requests for interviews.

 Crime in context

Explaining the need for additional manpower, Garber said the city “is unable to control the levels of violence and displace it outside of our community.” The police union, via Facebook, has warned that crime “will continue upward” unless more officers are hired.

Yet the violent crime rate in Lafayette is the second-lowest in the state among cities with more than 45,000 people, and it dropped by more than 11 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which complete FBI crime data is available. Most of the nine cities in that population class saw double-digit percentage increases in violent crime.

Among that group, only Kenner has a lower violent crime rate than Lafayette, and the two cities are far apart from the rest. The third-lowest violent crime rate, in Bossier City, is 70 percent greater than the one in Lafayette, according to FBI statistics.

Violence in Lafayette increased somewhat last year, reversing two years of consecutive declines, according to police department statistics. But the total number of violent crimes last year was still well below levels seen throughout the first half of this decade, despite a steadily increasing population.

The spike in violence last year included a 50 percent increase in murders, from 16 to 24, but the murder rate is abating so far this year: there had been only three through the end of May.

Garber and the police union have said that law enforcement personnel in Lafayette falls short of an FBI recommendation.

However, there is no FBI recommendation for law enforcement staffing, said Leonard Matarese, a public safety administration expert with the Center for Public Safety Management, which works with federal agencies on behalf of local governments.

“They are not in any way making recommendations, and they never have,” Matarese said. “They make a point of specifically saying in their annual reports not to look at what’s going on in other communities to make decisions about your own community.”

The FBI reports staffing levels for local law enforcement agencies across the country, sorting the data into per-capita averages. The reports come with a standard disclaimer that they “should not be interpreted as preferred officer strengths recommended by the FBI.” They are intended for information only, Matarese said.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in a formal position statement, echoes the FBI disclaimer.

“Ready-made, universally applicable patrol staffing standards do not exist,” the statement reads. “Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions.”

There are different ways to present the data. Cities with populations in the 100,000 to 249,999 range, for example, employed 1.6 officers and civilians per 1,000 residents on average in 2016, according to the most recently available report. Cities of that size in a region comprising Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas mirrored the national average. Lafayette exceeded that average, with 1.99 officers per capita.

A table compiled by the Lafayette Police Department takes a different approach. The Lafayette officer-per-resident ratio lags others in the state, according to the department’s analysis of FBI data pitting the city against every other Louisiana city of more than 45,000 people, minus Kenner.  

Garber and the police union have never said which numbers they are using. In an interview, Garber said he didn’t use a ratio to set his staffing goal, but he referred to an FBI recommendation to illustrate what he said is a manpower shortage.

The addition of 90 new deputies and officers would fall short of what Garber claimed is the existing standard, but he said “it’s a good start.”

“We are not going to be at the recommended level, and I’m not saying we need to be,” Garber said.

Asked what the recommended level is, Garber said he didn’t know offhand.

“I’m not going for that, so I don’t need to know that,” he said. “The number that I want to increase my enforcement by is realistic, and it’s a good step to deal with the population growth we have experienced. It’s based a lot on my judgement and my experience.”

The best way to determine staffing levels, Matarese said, is to measure the officers' workload, and not simply by counting 911 calls. A workload analysis would determine how much time officers spend responding to calls versus proactively engaging residents, business owners and other organizations.

“You can’t make unilateral decisions about staffing until you know where the workload is,” Matarese said. “If you’re just picking a number without any meaningful analysis, that number could be too big or too small.”

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.