The City-Parish Council voted 7-1 Tuesday to cut more than $500,000 from the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, a decision expected to be challenged in court.
The vote is the latest move in an ongoing battle with District Attorney Keith Stutes over what expenses city-parish government is legally mandated to pay.
The lingering issue 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.
“I decided not to kick that can down the road,” Stutes said.
Council Chairman Jay Castille said requiring city-parish government to pay the more than $500,000 would break the “parish” side of the split city-parish budget — the source of funding for the DA’s Office.
Castille said the parish’s general fund, suffering from weak sales tax collections, is short by roughly $1 million this year.
Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux said the funding would not have been an issue had Stutes continued Harson’s practice of covering more of his own expenses.
“This problem didn’t exist with the previous DA,” Boudreaux said. “There was a process and an agreement that had been in place that has been backed out of.”
Stutes said that practice was improper, and his office simply does not have funds to continue covering expenses he argues city-parish government is obligated to pay.
It was a difficult vote for some council members, looking out on a room filled with DA’s Office employees whose jobs could be impacted.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” said Councilwoman Nanette Cook, who asked Stutes what might become of those employees if she voted in favor of the cut.
Stutes said after the meeting he plans to cover salaries with his own discretionary funds, at least for the near future.
“How long we can do that? That I can’t tell you,” he said.
Stutes filed a lawsuit in May to keep the funding in place, and a court hearing is scheduled next week to decide whether the council’s budget cut will be voided, among other issues.
“The litigation is inevitable. Someone will have to decide this issue for us,” Stutes told the council members.
Voting in favor of the budget cut were council members Castille, Boudreaux, Cook, Jared Bellard, Liz Hebert, Pat Lewis and Bruce Conque.
Councilman William Theriot cast the lone “no” vote. Councilman Kevin Naquin was absent.
In other business, the council voted 5-3 to approve a nonbinding policy to hold tax elections only twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall.
Theriot had proposed limiting tax election to one general election date in the fall, but the council ultimately approved a compromise offered by Hebert to hold no more than two tax elections a year.
Theriot, who opposed the compromise, said voters are suspicious that holding tax elections on off dates when nothing else is on the ballot is a strategy to take advantage of low voter turnout, a strategy that cuts into government’s bottom line because election costs are roughly the same whether one issue or several are on the ballot.
“It is though we are manipulating voters and doing it with their hard-earned tax dollars,” he said.
Castille, Conque, Lewis, Hebert and Cook voted to support the policy.
Theriot, Bellard and Boudreaux voted against it.
The resolution serves only as guidance and carries no legal weight.
The council is not barred from putting a tax election on any ballot.