[Editor's Note (June 1, 2016): The hearing on the merits of Stutes' suit against consolidated government is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, June 15.]
Just how consolidated Lafayette Consolidated Government actually is will be put to the test, likely this year, when District Attorney Keith Stutes’ lawsuit against LCG is heard in court. The parish’s top prosecutor filed suit May 17 against LCG seeking full funding of his office. The legal process hit a snag in late May when the judges of the three-parish 15th Judicial District recused themselves from the case, necessitating an out-ofdistrict judge being called in to preside. But the suit will be gaveled, and it’s anyone’s guess how the case will be decided. Yet the short version of it is that if Stutes wins, the city of Lafayette loses.
Two stories converge here: Stutes’ suit and just what consolidation means, legally, with regard to LCG.
Shortly after he was sworn into office in January 2015, Stutes let LCG and the Lafayette City-Parish Council know that he would stop paying so-called “reimbursements” to LCG for a portion of the D.A. staff salaries — a custom established by his predecessor, Mike Harson, who served as district attorney from the commencement of consolidated government in 1996.
Out of courtesy, Stutes nonetheless paid those reimbursements for 2015 — nearly $600,000 in four installments, but he did it under protest and refused to remit the reimbursements for the current 2015-16 budget that began Nov. 1 of last year.
The D.A. cites legal precedents including a state Supreme Court ruling to argue that LCG is responsible for paying the entirety of his office’s annual budget, which, according to the current fiscal year LCG budget, is roughly $2.2 million, begging the question: What, precisely, is Lafayette Consolidated Government?
LCG officials have argued that Louisiana state law requires “parish” government to fund offices with parishwide duties — the jail, the parish courthouse, the assessor and, yes, the district attorney — and because of the nature of LCG, which isn’t really consolidated since the parish and city of Lafayette have separate budgets, the parish general fund alone is responsible for funding the district attorney. Problem is, parish government is essentially broke and, from LCG’s perspective, even broker now that Stutes is refusing to remit the reimbursements.
“Parish government is mandated under state law to fund parishwide services such as the D.A.,” says Councilman Bruce Conque, vice chair of the Council Finance Liaison Committee, who acknowledges gray areas in the Home Rule Charter (i.e., the constitution for LCG) when it comes to city-versusparish fiscal responsibilities: “The charter establishes that ‘the governmental functions of the City of Lafayette are hereby consolidated with the governmental functions of Lafayette Parish.’ This could be interpreted as the city of Lafayette being absorbed by the parish and thus responsible for parish obligations.”
“The charter creates a fiction of city and parish funds,” Stutes asserts, underscoring the interpretive contortions reading the charter requires. “As long as there was money in the parish fund, nobody cared.”
“The parish is experiencing a significant shortfall in revenue,” Conque adds. “This fiscal crisis can only be offset by either cutting services or reducing personnel. This applies to the D.A.’s office as well as the operations of the 15th Judicial District as applied to the parish obligations under state law. What and how much is yet to be determined pending legal counsel input.”
Parish sales tax collections are currently down about 35 percent compared to this time last year, Conque notes. The council will soon undertake a midyear budget adjustment that could lead to layoffs — that hasn’t happened, by our reckoning, in the 20-year history of LCG — and will almost certainly usher in significant cuts to services in unincorporated Lafayette Parish, i.e., the “parish” part of LCG.
In many ways this sober review of city and parish budgets and responsibilities is long overdue; Stutes’ lawsuit against LCG is forcing city-parish leaders to finally settle the matter or will, more properly, force a judge to decide it for us.
It’s worth noting — maybe speculate is the better word — that the impasse between the D.A. and consolidated government could possibly have been avoided had the two sides sat down and tried to hammer out an agreement early this year but, Stutes says, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux declined to meet.
But an impasse it is, and from the perspective of Stutes, who has a legal obligation to maintain a functioning prosecutor’s office, it doesn’t matter whether his funding comes from the parish general fund, the city general fund or a combination of the two. He needs to pay his staff, to prosecute bad guys.
It’s equally worth noting how easy it is to get bogged down in details, to fail to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Looking at the bigger picture lets us focus on the bigger issue — consolidation — and how consolidation as we know it in Lafayette Parish hasn’t always been in the best interest of the city of Lafayette.
The city of Lafayette pays about half the cost of a Parks & Recreation Department that everyone in the parish uses; the rest of Parks & Rec’s budget is funded by a cityonly property tax established in the early 1960s. Until 2014 the city paid 80 percent of the cost of funding the mayor-president’s office, although the city is only about 53 percent of the overall parish population and the mayor is elected by everyone in the parish; that funding disparity was right-sized under former Mayor-President Joey Durel, who long emphasized during his three terms in office the disadvantages to the city via consolidation. Every earth mover, bull dozer and other heavy equipment working in unincorporated Lafayette Parish belongs to the city, which fuels them, maintains them and pays to replace them when they no longer work. The list goes on.
If Stutes is successful — and no one’s arguing that his office should not be fully funded — the only place the additional revenue can come from is the city general fund.
The other towns in the parish — Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville — won’t have to pay an extra penny to help fund an agency that serves everyone in the parish. They’re not part of LCG. Only the city of Lafayette will.
When voters parishwide — all six municipalities plus those living in the unincorporated parish — approved consolidation in 1992, they did so resoundingly: 60 percent in favor.
But it was city of Lafayette voters who propelled the proposition to victory with 67 percent in favor. Outside the city of Lafayette, in the unincorporated parts of the parish and the smaller towns, the proposition failed 49-51.
But for many city folk like Conque, who led the charge to reverse consolidation in 2011 as a member of the Charter Commission — voters parishwide overwhelmingly rejected the proposition at the ballot box that fall — the 1992 consolidation measure voted on parishwide was flawed from the outset because it let voters in the small towns who wouldn’t be part of consolidation help make the decision. As a result of “consolidation,” residents in Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville help select four of the nine members of the City-Parish Council who regularly vote not only on parishwide fiscal matters but the city of Lafayette’s finances as well. In other words, through the representatives they vote onto the council, residents in the small towns make decisions about city of Lafayette finances and affairs. This is not a reciprocal situation.
It’s lost in the haze of decades why the small towns weren’t included in consolidation. This newspaper and others have used the phrase “opted out” in accounting for it. It’s not an unreasonable assumption that the small towns resisted being part of LCG — doing so would have meant dissolving their corporate identity, relinquishing their mayors and councils and becoming part of one parish entity. (This is the case in New Orleans, which consolidated with Orleans Parish in 1805, the first such consolidation of a city and county in U.S. history; there is no other city in Orleans Parish besides New Orleans, whose corporate limits are also the parish limits.)
Attorney Ed Abell, who was chairman of the Lafayette Consolidation Commission established by legislative act that paved the way for consolidation approved in a parishwide vote in 1992, recalls that including the small towns in the consolidation proposition was outside the scope of the commission’s work; the small towns couldn’t legally be included. Clearly they had made it known to the Legislature that they wanted no part of consolidation. Yet, voters in those towns were allowed to vote on consolidation even though they wouldn’t be part of LCG.
Consolidation was sold to voters as a cost-saving measure: By having one City- Parish Council instead of separate city and parish councils, we could save millions in salaries and duplication of services. It seemed like a good idea at the time — so good that city voters embraced it with gusto. But back then the city of Lafayette was 60 percent of the parish. That majority has dwindled to about 53 percent and, by the time the 2020 Census rolls around, could be 50 percent or less. Like every city, county and state in the country, LCG is required by federal law following each decennial census to redraw voting districts. If the city is below 50 percent after 2020, it would mean having a majority of districts on a City-Parish Council that calls the financial shots for the city of Lafayette elected by non-city of Lafayette voters. Is Rod Serling writing the script here?
“Many of us assumed [the city of] Lafayette would maintain its relative position,” Abell says, noting with regret that Walter Comeaux, the first mayor-president of LCG who served two terms, brought annexations to a trickle during the first eight years of consolidation, ushering in the city of Lafayette’s slow but inevitable decline as the majority entity within the parish. Since then, developers have planted subdivisions throughout unincorporated Lafayette Parish, which now accounts for nearly a third of the overall parish population.
Back at the intersection of competing interpretations of the charter — whether parish government alone is responsible for funding parishwide offices — remains an immutable fact: Parish government simply doesn’t generate enough revenue to support the services. Sales taxes are continually dwindling in unincorporated Lafayette Parish because soon after a business opens in the unincorporated area it gets annexed by a nearby city, thus redirecting those sales taxes away from the parish general fund and into the annexing city’s spreadsheets. The result, following the council’s mid-year budget readjustments, will surely be wide cutbacks in services, if not layoffs of LCG employees. Fewer coulees will be cleared of debris, grass in medians will grow taller, potholes will widen and dilapidated rural bridges will be closed rather than repaired, increasing traffic congestion as motorists seek alternative routes.
Abell says he believes the consolidated Home Rule Charter needs amending to make LCG function better, but he says we shouldn’t abandon it in and return to separate city and parish governments.
Conque, who still prefers deconsolidation but recognizes the impracticality of it at the ballot box, doesn’t disagree: “The charter is a seriously flawed document, and the unintended consequences may adversely impact the city of Lafayette, which has been my argument for re-establishing separate governing bodies for the city and parish of Lafayette.”
Even as our “consolidated” city-parish comes to terms with the terms, a district attorney awaits the funding he needs for his office to operate at full capacity.
“The law is the law,” Stutes says. “My duty and responsibility is to the citizens — all the citizens — of the city-parish government.
“I didn’t participate in the consolidation effort. I wonder if anyone knew at that point that this interpretation would be an after-the-fact interpretation — I don’t know. This is not about deconsolidation for me — it’s simply about following the law.”
If Stutes prevails and the city is on the hook for making up his funding shortfall, it will be unfair to city taxpayers — an unintended consequence of consolidation.
Adds Stutes: “If the law as it is now is an unintended consequence, that’s someone else’s conclusion — not mine.”