Durel: Consolidated form of government not working _lowres

Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel speaks earlier this year at the Convention Center in Lafayette. Durel is hitting the road in March and April for a series of town hall meetings to talk about priorities for the final two years of this third term in office.

City-Parish President Joey Durel railed against Lafayette’s consolidated form of government Monday, telling a committee exploring city-parish finances that he could not support any future tax proposal without changes to the current structure of local government.

Durel, who is serving his third and final term, spoke Monday to the city-parish Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee, a citizens advisory group created by the City-Parish Council in February to map out strategies to address the needs of local government.

The committee is expected to give its recommendations later this year, but Durel said he would be wary of any proposals to seek new tax revenue if efforts are not made to put a taller wall between the “city” and “parish” sides of city-parish government.

“Until the structure of this government is fixed, I will never support another tax,” he said.

The once-separate governments of Lafayette Parish and the city of Lafayette merged in 1996, but the marriage has been fraught with difficulties.

“We have been fooled into thinking it’s all about kumbaya,” Durel said.

The finances for the “city” and “parish” sides still are kept separate in the city-parish budget, and tax rates inside the city are higher than in rural areas.

And despite the fact that most tax dollars are generated with the city limits, everyone on the full nine-member City-Parish Council has an equal vote on budget issues.

That means a council member with a mostly rural constituency has the same say over the budgets of the city’s police and fire departments as a council member whose constituency is entirely within the city of Lafayette, even though rural residents pay no taxes to support those departments.

“We have noncitizens of Lafayette deciding how we spend city dollars,” Durel said.

The problem is made more complicated because residents in the five smaller municipalities in the parish — Broussard, Youngsville, Scott, Carencro and Duson — pay parishwide property taxes and can vote for city-parish president and city-parish council, even though those cities do not fall under the oversight of city-parish government and have their own local mayors and councils.

Durel said it leaves the city-parish president and council members trying to serve multiple masters when issues arise where the interest of the city of Lafayette conflicts with those of the other municipalities or rural areas.

“Politically, it’s a disaster,” Durel said. “… As the mayor of Lafayette, I have to go campaigning in Broussard, Youngsville and Carencro.”

As one possible solution, Durel and others have proposed a tweaked version of consolidated government where only council members who represent the city of Lafayette vote on city issues, such as how to spend tax dollars collected in the city or oversight of the city’s utility system, Police Department and Fire Department.

The idea of a tweaked form of consolidated government has gained little traction, and voters in 2011 rejected a more drastic measure to undo consolidation and return to two separate governments.

Durel said consolidation was touted in the 1990s as a way to save money through the efficiencies of combining the staff and departments of two governments into one, but he said that never happened because, with the exception of elected officials, the workforce numbers never changed.

He said the plan was to gradually trim the combined workforce through attrition as employees retired after consolidation, then use the money that had gone to salaries to pay for more projects, such as road and drainage work.

“It never happened,” he said.

Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said the “parish” side of government had little money before consolidation and nothing has changed in the years since.

“We consolidated but didn’t change the tax structure. Why should we have more money now?” she asked.

Durel, even while pointing to consolidation as the central problem, said there are no doubt some areas of local government could use more tax support.

Parks and recreation, for example, is supported by a 1.92-mill property tax paid only in the city of Lafayette to support a parishwide recreation systems that needs an annual budget subsidy of about $5 million from other areas of the budget.

Another big drain on the budget is the downtown parish jail, built in 1984 to replace the old jail that was on the top floor of the parish courthouse.

“They built a five-story jail but didn’t go to voters to get the millage changed,” Durel said. “So we are running a five-story jail today with a one-story millage.”

But Durel said bringing any tax proposal to voters to address those issues would be difficult without first addressing consolidation.

“It has created a lack of trust in this government for me,” he said.