D.A. Stutes threatens to sue LCG over funding

by Walter Pierce

The district attorney disputes a common practice of his predecessor in which the prosecutor’s office "reimbursed" consolidated government for some funding costs.

In a pair of letters sent to Lafayette Consolidated Government officials the first week of May, District Attorney Keith Stutes vows to file suit against LCG if his office isn’t fully funded in the 2016-17 budget, which will be finalized in early September following a series of budget hearings that commence July 26.

At issue in the dispute are Stutes’ refusal to continue paying so-called “reimbursements” 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 until being defeated by Stutes following the fall 2014 election — as well as an interpretation of state law regarding whether parish government or the city of Lafayette or both is responsible for funding the office.
Complicated, we know, and it cuts to the heart of just how “consolidated” Lafayette Consolidated Government really is. Or isn’t.

The letters, replete with ALL CAP demands — the prosaic equivalent of shouting — cite 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.

Stutes’ predecessor annually paid back to LCG a portion of that funding — more than a quarter in fact — in the form of reimbursements. When Stutes took office in January 2015, which was just a quarter into the 2014-15 fiscal year budget, he paid LCG 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.

LCG officials, led by Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups, have argued that Louisiana state law requires “parish” government to fund D.A. offices and, because of the nature of LCG — it’s not really consolidated since the parish and city of Lafayette have separate budgets — the parish general fund 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.

Bruce Conque

“The parish is experiencing a significant shortfall in revenue,” says Councilman Bruce Conque, vice chair of the Council Finance Liaison Committee. “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 tells ABiz; later in May council members will 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 Lafayette Consolidated Government. (Bear in mind that when Lafayette Parish began the process of consolidating in the early to mid 1990s, the smaller towns of Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville opted out, so really the “consolidation” of government in the parish was only the city of Lafayette and the unincorporated part of Lafayette Parish. Due to rabid annexations in the late 1990s and until recently, unincorporated Lafayette Parish has been shrinking as the municipalities gobble up unincorporated areas with businesses that generate sales taxes; the effect is that unincorporated Lafayette Parish generates very little revenue for the parish general fund — the very fund LCG officials argue is the legal source of funding for Stutes’ office.)

“The [home rule] charter creates a fiction of city and parish funds,” Stutes tells ABiz, arguing that Lafayette Consolidated Government, irrespective of where the funding comes from — the parish and/or city general funds — is responsible for funding his office in its entirety.

“[LCG] uses an allocation system and it’s arbitrary,” Stutes adds. “I can’t sue the police jury because it doesn’t exist.”

Stutes says he wasn’t even aware of the shortfall in parish general fund revenue until April of this year when, he says, he was at an unrelated Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting and Toups, LCG’s top bean counter, laid that shortfall at his feet, citing his refusal to continue paying the reimbursements to consolidated government. In his May 3 letter to government officials he refers to it as an “ambushed revelation,” arguing that LCG was aware of his issue with the legality of the reimbursements within months of him assuming office in 2015. Toups, Stutes further asserts, suggested that his refusal to pay the reimbursements could have an adverse financial effect on the budget for district court judges at the Lafayette Parish Courthouse.

“This is not only incorrect but scandalous,” Stutes writes in the letter, adding later that if Toups’ declaration at that Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting was a tactic to get him to the negotiating table, it “not only was wrong but despicable!” (His exclamation mark, not ours.)

“My patience is rather thin,” Stutes tells us, although he isn’t willing to commit to a timeline for when he might file suit against LCG to get his full funding. He tells ABiz he hasn’t gotten any response from LCG in the matter since January — aside from Toups’ “ambush revelation” in late April — and even that was a cursory “We’ll get to it as soon as we can” type of response.

ABiz reached out to Toups on May 9 seeking a meeting to discuss D.A. funding but never heard back from here.

Stutes says it ultimately doesn’t matter whether his funding comes from the parish general fund, the city general fund or a combination of the both: State law makes it clear that the parish governing authority is responsible for funding the district attorney’s office, and the parish governing authority in this case is Lafayette Consolidated Government. If the city of Lafayette having to share the cost of D.A. operations represents an unintended consequence of consolidation — the other cities in the parish, it’s worth noting, are not being asked to chip in — that’s not Keith Stutes’ problem.

“This is not about consolidation for me,” he says. “It’s simply about the law; it’s about being treated fairly and following the law.”