Louisiana’s ailing municipalities can cure themselves if they choose more wisely.
A financially troubled municipality can cost the state dearly. For example, fixing the decrepit water system run by St. Joseph in Tensas Parish, which violated health standards, required a bailout of $11 million that came partly out of state taxpayers’ pockets.
Many others float in the same leaky boat. A state task force identified six other municipal waterworks in distress, citing problems with pipe and pump deterioration, system management, insufficient maintenance funding, and water quality threats.
The Legislative Auditor also recently released reports on what it termed high-risk municipalities. Some also suffered from water provision woes, but other strains include declining tax bases and increasing cost of government services.
Because of fiscal crises, the state already has taken over governance of St. Joseph, plus a few other places, and expects it will intervene in a few more. Altogether (with some falling in multiple categories), officials have identified 24 of Louisiana’s 303 municipalities in some kind of difficulty and anticipate that list growing considerably.
Understanding how to stay off a path to failure can prevent future hardships for citizens and the subsequent bills for repairs covered by citizens statewide. For their part, municipal officials often blame shrinking populations, leaving fewer people to pay for the services with an infrastructure designed for more users.
But depopulation is a real issue in only half of these cases. From 2010 to 2017, a third of these municipalities gained population, and another sixth lost fewer than 3 percent (the most being 14 residents). Nor were hemorrhaging utility systems always to blame. Based on available data, a third of the municipalities ran surpluses in the 2013-15 period, some very healthy ones.
According to investigators, artificially low rates are to blame for many municipalities with water system deficits. Reviewing those 24 systems, of the ten with the lowest charges for typical residential use — ranging from 100 to 150 percent of the average rate charged by the state’s private water suppliers — only three operate in the black.
Local officials resist raising rates or changing counterproductive billing practices such as flat rates or lax fee collection, in order to reduce financial burdens on their citizens. But there’s no free lunch; somebody must pay.
Herein lies the real cause of the crisis: Louisiana’s populist political culture, featuring over the past century and longer a government that emphasizes redistribution of wealth. Keeping fees and taxes on individuals relatively low while disproportionately depending upon businesses to prop up outsized government has scored local politicians votes as well as enriched them.
Half of these municipalities on the brink pay their mayors at least $25,000 a year, despite all having fewer than 12,000 residents. Leaders of Bogalusa and Grambling make six figures, and Robeline’s 176 residents paid over $30,000 for theirs.
Most significantly, recently governing almost all of these municipalities have been Democrats, members of the hereditary party of populism, or officials elected without a party label. Those are a rose by any other name: Democratic-leaning small-town Louisiana elected officials run without a label to signal displeasure with the national party on social issues despite approving of its economic platform.
Of the 24 municipalities, only two recently have had GOP mayors, and just one has a Republican council majority. Only one of the other 22 doesn’t have both a Democrat in the mayor’s office and Democrats holding council or board majorities; almost half of those 21 have only Democrats as mayor and council members or aldermen.
To keep municipal finances healthy, voters must part ways with politicians who follow the populist vision of government spreading the wealth for their own self-enrichment and electoral success.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.