The Lafayette city-parish mayor and council chairman agree that opponents of the Lafayette Parish property tax proposals that tanked on the ballot Tuesday spread misleading information prior to the election. 

But the handling of that information deepened the rift between Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and Council Chairman Kevin Naquin, who already were at odds over Robideaux's opposition to the property taxes. 

Robideaux emailed city-parish council members on Oct. 31 with concerns about “misleading information” being spread about the finances of the parish jail, specifically an assertion that it was running a surplus.

It mattered because voters would decide the next week whether to adopt two new property taxes intended to prop up the jail and courthouse. Voters rejected the taxes on the Nov. 6 ballot by wide margins. Both proposals went down with 74 percent voting no, according to complete but unofficial returns. Turnout was 48 percent.

Robideaux publicly opposed the taxes, but not because he believes the jail is flush. Instead, Robideaux reasoned the parish can meet its legal obligations at the jail with existing revenues, he said Wednesday.

Robideaux nonetheless pointed council members to budget pages showing that jail expenses will exceed the estimated $6.1 million from an existing property tax for the jail in the current fiscal year. Robideaux was providing the information to council members “for your talking points,” according to the email.

Not amused was Council Chairman Kevin Naquin, who felt Robideaux was privately leaning on the council to get the message out about the dire straits of the jail while publicly working to defeat the tax proposals.

“That was an underlying note was to say, 'Hey, here’s the misleading information. If y’all need talking points, this is how you can defend it,'” Naquin said Wednesday. “You kill it and then you turn around and send a message that you know there is false information out there, and it is not a surplus.”

Robideaux said the email was merely a response to a request for information from council members, who had learned tax opponents were telling people the jail operated on a surplus.

“My response to (council members) was to give them what they wanted in the way of talking points, that we do in fact spend all the jail millage that comes in.”

Robideaux acknowledged the fiscal conundrum that lead Naquin and other council members to push for new taxes: The jail routinely operates beyond the provisions of the dedicated jail tax, forcing disproportionate injections from another tax for both the courthouse and the jail.

That results in the courthouse sucking money from the parish general fund, jeopardizing services in other areas. The parish general fund is now operating with essentially zero reserves, and revenues are shrinking yearly with municipal annexations. While that presents an unsustainable situation, Robideaux said, his opposition to the tax proposals was rooted in his belief they aren’t needed right now.

“That doesn’t mean that if the council or any member of the public says, 'Hey, we are hearing this, can we get some facts behind it', that I’m not going to provide them with the facts,” Robideaux said.

The concern over misinformation stems, at least in part, from the assertion by the Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes that combined courthouse-jail property tax is running a surplus of more than $7 million. The group’s Facebook page made the claim at least twice in recent weeks, most recently the morning before the election.

The public face of the anti-tax group, Michael Lunsford, said the surplus claim was based on the tax fund balance at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, as shown in the city-parish’s midyear audit.

Robideaux said he didn’t know off the top of his head the reason for the fund balance, but it’s common for money committed in one fiscal year to go unspent because of contract delays or other routine reasons. The committed money usually shows up in the audit for the next year, when the money is spent, he said.

“There’s a lot that goes into the spending of those dollars and it doesn’t always happen within Nov. 1 to Oct. 31,” said Robideaux, who is a CPA by trade. “If so, it didn’t mean you don’t need it; it just means it hadn’t actually been expended at the end of the fiscal year.”

That balance Lunsford pointed to is calculated with only $636,945 in transfers out of the fund, with nearly $4.5 million budgeted. Estimated expenses the next year, meanwhile, exceeded revenues by $4.3 million, an unusually large amount.

The city-parish budget documents are so complex, Lunsford said, that he believes they are designed to make “people just give up and stop digging into them.”

“I do my best, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it, but even I don’t understand all of it,” he said.

Still, the mid-year audit is "black and white" in appearing to show a surplus, Lunsford said.  

“Can I speak to that and say I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s what’s going on? Of course not," he said. "According to this document, that's what's going on. If the document is wrong, that’s not my fault.”

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