July 1, 2013 06:00 AM

As cities in the parish struggle to meet costs, parish government treads water.

It took me a full hour to shake the palpitations occasioned by agreeing with the tea party folks who stood before the council one recent Tuesday. They were there to oppose the repeal of a 2-percent rebate given to businesses that collect and remit sales taxes on time within the city and unincorporated parish. I don't like agreeing with the tea party folks.

I had gone into the meeting - virtually, actually, because I watched it online - believing that private enterprise shouldn't be getting a cut of public dollars. Repealing the rebate wouldn't increase taxes, but it would've redirected about $1.5 million more in revenue annually toward roads, bridges, schools and really sacrilegious transgender dance productions. I don't use the roads and bridges much, but I loves me some dancing divas.

The business owners who also addressed the council made a compelling case: the rebate isn't a reward for collecting and turning over the taxes - although it was most certainly a carrot dangled before merchants 50 years ago when the city sales tax was instituted - it's compensation for the cost to the businesses of providing a service to government, which is subcontracting the collection of sales taxes to local businesses. And the shopkeepers have no say in the matter. They are conscripted by law.

So, as a government, we will leave that $1.5 million off the table. The ordinance failed, and I can't condemn the council's vote.

But the issue was illustrative of a bigger, recurring concern in Lafayette (and the genesis of the ordinance): taxes and revenue, or a lack thereof. And before I get a head of steam on this mother, please don't tell me we're taxed enough already. Taxes in Lafayette Parish are relatively low compared to other parishes of our population and affluence. Just look at the property tax for schools in St. Tammany Parish (much higher) then compare their schools to ours (much better).

Arguably the biggest money pit in terms of non-essential government services are our municipal golf courses, and with an LCG budget in the $600 million range even the golf courses are a drop in the proverbial bucket. But they're money losers maintained by the city of Lafayette. (And is it any coincidence that our city leaders over the decades have generally been middle- and upper middle class white dudes, the same demographic that really digs golf?)

Lafayette, relative to other parishes in Louisiana, is geographically small and densely packed. It's an urban parish, and maintaining our infrastructure and providing recreational opportunities that enhance quality of life while ameliorating the stress on civic institutions impacted by the very urban nature of the parish (read: poverty) costs a lot of money.

Youngsville is forward thinking in this respect. Voters there approved in 2011 a 1-cent sales tax to build a sports/recreational complex, which is now going up in a former cane field and will be open by early next year. Consultants have told city leaders the facility could bring 1 million visitors annually to Youngsville in the future. In response the council approved an ordinance that will put a 4-cent hotel occupancy tax before voters this fall, and Youngsville doesn't even have a hotel or motel right now. But it no doubt will once the tax-funded sports complex is firing on all pistons. Revenue will be necessary to accommodate growth.

The recently resolved fracas between Lafayette and Broussard over the latter's annexation lawsuit also speaks to this issue.

Annexations are only about territory insofar as that territory generates revenue via sales and property taxes. No one ever annexed a wasteland.

But here's where it gets dicey for us as a "consolidated, all-in-this-together" parish: Every time Broussard or Youngsville or Lafayette or any other municipality annexes an area with businesses, it is siphoning sales taxes away from parish government. Remember that Lafayette is "consolidated" more or less in name only. Lafayette city government and Lafayette Parish government operate on separate books and separate revenue streams. Yet it is parish taxes that fund the sheriff's office, the jail, the parish courthouse and libraries, etc., and as the municipalities race to gobble up the unincorporated parish, funding for those very vital enterprises shrinks.

Lafayette Parish, as a governmental entity, is withering on the vine and eventually, if we don't do something about it, it's going to bite us on our collective ass. Yeah, I'm talking to y'all in Carencro, Duson and Scott, too. When the jail doesn't have room for your bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

We'll see what happens in the fall when Youngsville voters decide on that hotel occupancy tax. The tea party folks will oppose it vigorously, and I couldn't disagree with them more.

What a relief!


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