Maybe the population numbers are not that big, and that’s one of the problems, but there is a crisis in small-town Louisiana.
Daniel Webster famously said of Dartmouth College that it is a small place, but there are those who love it. The people remaining in little hamlets across Louisiana may love them, but their economic capacity to go on is increasingly limited.
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said his staff counted 850 separate water systems in the state. “That’s a lot,” he said. “And it just may no longer be possible to have a water system serving 300 households.”
Purpera’s office is ground zero of the financial crisis in "Mayberry, Louisiana." The auditors who evaluated water systems last year won a national award for their work.
With drinking-water crises in St. Joseph in northeastern Louisiana, the issues have become front and center in public attention. St. Joe alone cost the state millions to fix the most urgent problems. But it is accepted as given that a lot more crises are just waiting to happen.
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ task force on water infrastructure looked at data from the auditor’s office and found at least 10 that were near financial collapse.
What Purpera pointed out on Monday to the Press Club of Baton Rouge was that there are other cases in which overspending and bad judgment by local officials has pushed towns to the brink.
Auditor since 2010, Purpera has had the task of taking over the finances of more towns that anyone in state government can remember. The largest is Bogalusa in Washington Parish, but there are others. Clinton north of Baton Rouge is on deck for state takeover.
A bill by Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, passed in this year’s Legislature, mandates a look at water infrastructure. Its agenda will have to include consolidation of some of the smallest systems, if they can be made financially viable.
Some of the problems arise from egregious empire-building by small-town officials, like a multimillion-dollar recreation complex in the northeastern Louisiana town of Sterlington. The bonanza of softball tournaments paying off the bonds never panned out.
While technically much of small-town borrowing is with revenue bonds, without “the full faith and credit” of the state of Louisiana, as a practical matter state government cannot afford the black-eye in the financial markets if defaults occur.
Typically, when a community becomes essentially insolvent, a state financial manager must take over. Purpera said it’s difficult to find folks with the right financial skills to do that job; one of its bonuses, Purpera said wryly, is “that everybody hates you.” The officials lose their power and residents, often used to low water rates or taxes, don’t like to have to pay at an economical level.
But while there are cases of mismanagement like Sterlington, an underlying problem is that small places are often losing population, which means fewer residents to pay the taxes that support basic public services like the water supply. The promise of internet connectivity and a dispersal of good-paying jobs to the Mayberrys of America has never quite panned out.
While the Thompson bill is welcome, Louisiana’s leadership needs a deeper dive into the issues of smaller communities. A better set of policy prescriptions is needed than just sending in Purpera to fix the messes developed over years of poor decisions.
Doc Hines: There have been some remarkable characters on the high dais of the state Senate, but the late Senate President Don Hines of Bunkie was among the most popular in the State Capitol. The physician as well as the politician, dead at 85, will be greatly missed.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.