Council slashes DA budget by $500K

by Walter Pierce

The feinting and jabbing between District Attorney Keith Stutes and Lafayette Consolidated Government continued into another round Tuesday night. The haymakers fly next week.

The feinting and jabbing between District Attorney Keith Stutes and Lafayette Consolidated Government continued into another round Tuesday night when the City-Parish Council voted to cut the DA’s budget by $500,000. The haymakers fly next week when the two sides go to court to decide once and for all — barring an appeal by the losing side — how the district attorney’s office should be funded.

Stutes had gone to court last week to ask a judge to block the council from voting on the budget adjustment, but decided after lengthy closed-door meetings with LCG’s attorneys and the judge that he would wait and see how the council voted Tuesday. Ultimately, the council’s action Tuesday is of little import as the judge had already ruled that he would begin hearing arguments on the merits of Stutes’ lawsuit against LCG on June 15. Stutes filed suit against LCG in May, arguing that LCG, irrespective of whether the money comes from the parish general fund, the city of Lafayette general fund or a combination of the two, is responsible for funding his office’s expenses. Stutes’ predecessor, Mike Harson, had worked out a deal with LCG in which he reimbursed consolidated government about $600,000 per year to cover some salary and benefits costs associated with the DA’s office. Stutes stopped that practice this year, pointing to state statute and legal precedent to argue the practice is unjustified.

But by refusing to remit the payments, Stutes placed LCG and the council in a tight spot: The previous council last year approved a fiscal year budget for 2015-16 that assumed Stutes would continue making the reimbursement payments — even though he had informed the council shortly after being sworn into office in January of 2015 that those payments would stop this year. As a result, the current council was operating under a budget for the parish that wasn’t fully funded.

LCG officials and some council members point to the Home Rule Charter to argue that it is the parish side of consolidated government — the other side being the city of Lafayette — that is solely responsible for funding parishwide obligations such as the DA’s office, the sheriff, jail, assessor, parish courthouse and assessor. Stutes’ position, laid out in that May lawsuit, is that LCG is responsible, and if the city of Lafayette has to cover a shortfall created by lagging sales tax revenue on the parish side, so be it.

Ultimately, the lawsuit should help decide the issue.

The council vote was 7-1, with District 9 Councilman William Theriot voting against the funding cut. (District 2 Councilman Kevin Naquin was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.)

In the meantime, Stutes told the local dailies following Tuesday’s meeting that he will use his office’s discretionary funds to cover the shortfall.

For more on the underlying issues, read “Unintended Consequences” in The Independent’s June issue.