Lafayette Parish voters on Nov. 18 will determine whether the parish budget is in grave peril or just plain bad shape. The Nov. 18 ballot consists of two property tax renewals that voters rejected in April, as well as the reallocation of an existing tax.
Early voting starts Friday and runs through Nov. 11.
The two taxes proposed for renewal generate nearly $10 million a year for the courthouse complex, at 2.34 mills, and parish jail, at 2.06 mills. State law requires the parish to pay for those facilities, so Lafayette Consolidated Government officials would be forced to plug the hole with the parish’s general fund.
Maintaining current funding levels for the courthouse and jail without those property taxes would wipe out most of the $12.2 million general fund, which covers the district attorney’s office, judge salaries and public works. All would inevitably suffer if voters don’t approve the taxes, said Mayor-President Joel Robideaux.
The courthouse would be open fewer hours with fewer services, and some prisoners otherwise ineligible for early release would be let out with ankle monitors, Robideaux said. At the same time, he said, road and bridge repairs would be put on hold, and a severe drainage maintenance backlog that Robideaux estimates at $30 million would worsen.
“You’ll have drainage crews that do work in the parish that won’t be able to exist,” Robideaux said.
At a finance liaison meeting on Thursday, city-parish officials grappled with the possibility of another rejection. Funding would continue at the same levels for another year, and city-parish government could try again to pass the taxes in the spring. But Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux said passage would become even more difficult next year, once the taxes expire.
“It becomes a new tax at that point. If it goes away you just lost your opportunity to renew, and it becomes an actual new,” Boudreaux said at the finance meeting. “I don’t know why you would anticipate approval going forward.”
The drainage backlog figures into Robideaux’s proposal to split up a 3.56-mill property tax — known as the combined public health millage — that pays for a health clinic, animal control and mosquito abatement. Those departments only need about $5 million annually, but the tax brings in about $8 million, Robideaux said. The yearly overage has accumulated into a $10 million fund balance. Voters will decide whether to shift $2.5 million of the annual proceeds to drainage, along with $9 million of the fund balance.
Robideaux said all the new drainage revenue would go toward clearing out 600 miles of coulees within the parish, which he said is a necessary precursor to any future capital investment.
“I can’t even have the conversation with the taxpayers right now to say we need to do these big drainage projects at maybe $35 million and $50 million when the response would be, ‘how about you just dig out the coulee in the back of my house that hasn’t been dug out in 30 years,’” Robideaux said.
As part of the same measure, voters will decide whether to commit $500,000 of the combined public health millage to culture and recreation. Robideaux said the idea is generally to promote tourism and to freshen up city parks and recreational spaces. But specific proposals for using the money won’t come until later, he said.
Uncertain public support for the tax measures is not all that is jeopardizing the parish budget. About two-thirds of general fund revenues come from sales and property taxes, and proceeds from both are declining more rapidly than city-parish officials have anticipated.
Sales tax collections dropped nearly 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, from $5.8 million to $4.7 million, and the city-parish initially budgeted an 8.5 percent increase that year. Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said at the finance liaison meeting that parish sales tax revenues continue to lag.
Meanwhile, the city-parish annual budget that went into effect Wednesday anticipates a 2 percent increase in property-tax collections, which is in line with previous years. But a depressed oil economy resulted in only a one percent increase, said Assessor Conrad Comeaux. That amounts to nearly a $600,000 shortfall for the nine parish-wide property taxes that figure into the parish budget, with more than $100,000 less for roads and bridges than the budget anticipates, according to Comeaux’s calculations.
“It’s a double whammy,” Comeaux said, referring to the loss in both sales and property tax revenues.