A lot of fingers were pointed when a special state committee convened last week to decide whether to take over the Natchitoches Parish village of Clarence, which has such a staggering debt that policemen have been laid off and drinking water is about to be shut off.
“We need help,” Alderwoman Tamala Chatman told the state Fiscal Review Committee last week. She blamed the mayor for hiring friends, locking the aldermen out of city hall and making threats because “he doesn’t like me.”
Bickering over whose mama is uglier is common fare at hearings before the committee that decides when a fiscal administrator with near-dictatorial powers is needed to push aside the local elected officials and take over a town. The Fiscal Review panel will be hearing a lot of similarly themed testimony in 2019 when officials from a dramatically growing number of insolvent towns make their case, said Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, who chairs the committee. (Generally, the local officials oppose action by the committee, because the court-appointed fiscal specialists administer some fairly stern medicine like fee increases, staff layoffs, and department reorganizations.)
But Purpera’s auditors are seeing a steep uptick of smaller communities finding themselves simply unable to raise enough money to pay the bills. The only way to balance budgets are to raise revenues or cut services — options local officials are loathe to do especially in small, low-income communities where everybody knows your name. “We’re in for some hard times,” Purpera said.
Jeanerette and St. Joseph already have fiscal administrators. Before last week’s meeting was through the committee voted to ask courts to appoint administrators for Clarence and Clayton. Bogalusa and Sterlington are on the agenda for February. Clinton and Melville could soon be put on the list.
“Many of our smaller villages are extremely challenged because of a loss of population,” state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches, explained to the committee. People of Long’s generation, in their 60s, can remember a time when Louisiana was predominantly a state of small towns scattered across largely rural areas.
In 1950 about two-thirds of the state’s population lived in small towns and rural areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That had flipped by 1980 when only 31 percent of the population lived in rural areas. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 757,126 residents, or about 16 percent of the state’s total population, living in those same areas.
Census figures show that folks are leaving small towns for the south Louisiana metropolises along Interstate 10. Those left behind tend to make less money and are less educated. The USDA Economic Research Service reported that the annual income for residents in rural areas of Louisiana was $35,170 in 2017 compared to $42,298 in urban areas. About one in five, or 21.2 percent, hadn’t graduated high school compared to 15.2 percent in urban areas in 2016.
Once a thriving agricultural community with shops and retailers lining its main street, St. Joseph has lost half its population since 1980. Among those remaining the unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent — roughly three times higher than the state average — and a median family income of about $29,000 — more than 40 percent below the state as a whole.
With retailers closed and businesses shuttered about the only secure source of income has been the drinking water sold to the remaining town residents.
Tapping the town’s drinking water system to pay other bills is a common refrain, said the state health officer, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, who attends a lot of the Fiscal Review committee meetings simply because of the problems that come when towns use their drinking water revenues to run their governments.
This is why urban residents in south Louisiana should care what happens in these small towns.
Lead from old repairs flaked off the unmaintained 80-year-old pipes and polluted St. Joseph’s drinking water, which required the governor to call a health emergency in 2016. Since people’s lives were at stake, fixing St. Joseph's water infrastructure was no longer optional and all philosophical arguments about who is responsible for troubled Louisiana towns went out the window.
Louisiana taxpayers had to spend $10 million to provide safe drinking water to less than 1,000 residents of an isolated northeast Louisiana town. About 1,300 of the state’s water systems are over the age of 50 and many of them are in towns with financial troubles, Guidry told the committee.
“This is going to reach a crisis point very soon,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said in an interview. “We need to get those administrators in there.”