Facing drastic cuts, Acadiana Crime Lab pins hope on state study _lowres

Advocate photo by Brad Kemp -- Forensic Chemist Warner Q. Borres with the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory works on a sample in the lab in this Jan. 6, 2015, Advocate file photo.

The crime lab that tests evidence for law enforcement agencies in Acadiana could face drastic cuts next year without substantial new revenue to shore up the budget.

The Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory in New Iberia, which serves an eight-parish region including Lafayette, has tapped out its savings after years of deficits and is avoiding cuts this year only with the help of a special $800,000 appropriation from the state Legislature.

“That’s a one-time thing that we do not expect to see in 2016. It just buys us some time,” crime lab Director Kevin Ardoin said.

The crime lab’s expenses have remained fairly flat in recent years, hovering around $2.5 million.

But the lab’s main source of funding, court costs paid by criminal defendants in Acadiana, has fallen sharply, from about $2.2 million in 2009 to about $1.5 million in 2014.

“We haven’t increased expenses. It’s just a product of the revenues decreasing,” Ardoin said.

The lab has dug deep into prior years’ savings to prop up the budget, which had deficits of around $700,000 for 2013 and 2014.

The savings account is now drying up, and the lab is starting 2015 with a safety net of less than $300,000 — not nearly enough to fill the budget gap if not for the special appropriation from the state.

“Without the $800,000, we would have to significantly cut our budget,” Ardoin said. “Once you make those amounts of cuts, you may never recover.”

Ardoin began sounding the alarm over the budget issue in late 2013, and the Legislature formed a task force last year to study the issue.

The reasons for the decline in court costs are difficult to pin down, because the fees are coming from a tangle of different jurisdictions in eight parishes — state district courts, city courts, mayor’s courts — but the task force has pointed to declining traffic citations in some areas and inconsistent collection policies.

The group has explored several proposals, including removing exemptions from court costs now granted for certain traffic offenses, seeking an annual state appropriation to cover 25 percent of the lab’s operating budget, and seeking funding from the alcohol and video poker industries and from the pharmaceutical industry because law enforcement agencies are increasingly dealing with the illegal use of prescription drugs.

The task force, which is expected to make its formal recommendations later this month to the Legislature, also has discussed raising some court costs and working with judges throughout the Acadiana region to ensure court costs are being collected.

“What we’ve learned is that there needs to be a consistency of collections,” said Dee Stanley, chief administrative officer for Lafayette Consolidated Government and president of the commission that oversees the crime lab.

Stanley said the path forward is still not certain.

The crime lab faced a similar funding crisis about a decade ago and reached out to law enforcement agencies in the region for financial support.

The hope is that a long-term funding solution can be hashed out, Stanley said, but he said it’s inconceivable the region will not come together to at least work out a short-term fix, considering the critical need the lab serves.

Stanley said he sees little fat in the lab’s budget, so any cuts would have to come from reducing staff and trimming expenses for supplies and equipment.

“If you cut that, it has a direct impact on law enforcement and solving crimes, and nobody wants that to happen,” Stanley said. “You just can’t put a price on those things.”

The funding questions come as the crime lab is handling an increasing number of cases — up by more than 800 from 2013 to 2014 — while at the same time trimming its backlog by about 9 percent last year, according to figures from the lab.

Ardoin said the lab needs to find at least another $1 million a year to support current operations.

Boosting court costs collections could be a good start to reach that goal, but he said a more stable revenue source is needed or the lab will find itself facing the same budget crisis in years to come.

“I still feel like there is more work to be done,” he said. “The increase in court costs is not the answer.”

Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.