ABiz Columns

A Parish Divided The April 29 tax votes demonstrated a disconnect between the city of Lafayette and the rest of the parish.

by Walter Pierce

As city-parish officials scratch their heads and fret over how they’ll conduct operations with a combined $10 million less in annual funding for parish government after voters parishwide rejected two property tax renewals funding maintenance of the parish courthouse and correctional operations, the April 29 results at the ballot box underscore a profound divide between the city of Lafayette and the otherwise rural parish surrounding it.

Those two property taxes generate roughly $10 million for a parish General Fund that totals a little over $12 million. Mayor Joel Robideaux will have to figure out a way of spreading that devastating loss in revenue across a parish budget that is already abysmally cash-strapped. That will likely mean deep cuts to services such as drainage, recreation and even fire protection for the nearly one-third of Lafayette Parish residents who live in the unincorporated parish. (Recall that under “consolidated” government the unincorporated parish and city of Lafayette are separate budgets, and the smaller towns — Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville — are not part of Lafayette Consolidated Government.)

Crunching the numbers precinct by precinct and using as our guide only those precincts that are wholly within the corporate limits of Lafayette — there are nearly three dozen hybrid precincts in which voters from both the city of Lafayette and unincorporated Lafayette Parish, and in a few cases a smaller municipality, vote — the renewals for the jail, courthouse and minimum security detention center would have each passed handily in the city of Lafayette by 55 to 45 percent, yet each failed in the parishwide vote by a 51-49 percent margin.

The parish courthouse and jail complex property tax, at 2.34 mills annually, generates roughly $5.3 million a year; the 2.06 mills property tax for the minimum security detention center generates just under $4.7 million annually, according to descriptions of those taxes on the April 29 ballot. That funding stream for assets that are the responsibility of the entire parish will soon dry up, although LCG’s legal team recently opined — and Assessor Conrad Comeaux says he’s certain — that the property taxes voters nixed can still be collected this year, staving off the revenue drop until the next fiscal year. Sources tell ABiz there is a genuine sense of urgency within the administration and some council members to try to get the renewals back on a ballot, possibly by November.

The parishwide vote on the half cent sales tax proposition to build two new elementary schools and replace temporary classrooms on 10 other campuses — the majority of which are located within the city of Lafayette — is more difficult to unpack in terms of how the city of Lafayette voted. The proposition failed miserably parishwide — 59 percent against, 41 percent in favor — yet it was much closer within the city of Lafayette. Among those 46 precincts that are entirely within the corporate limits of the city, the tax failed by a narrow margin: 50.5 percent against, 49.5 percent in favor. Fifty-three votes was the margin. But it’s just as likely as not that among the 33 hybrid precincts where city of Lafayette voters rub shoulders with voters from outside the city, there would have been enough support to carry the proposition to passage.

Voters in Youngsville, the beneficiary of the most spending on public schools over the last decade including $76 million for the new Southside High School, voted against the LPSS tax prop by a 75-25 percent margin. In fairness to Youngsville, the city has an existing sales tax rate of 10.5 percent, the highest in the parish and exactly a half cent below the state’s statutory limit on sales taxes. Had the LPSS tax proposition passed, Youngsville would have been prevented from putting forward any local-option sales tax referenda for several years. And in fairness to everyone who voted against the LPSS tax proposition, a decent argument can be made that the school board asking for a sales tax instead of a property tax was a bad idea to begin with, although the outside money and a state attorney general meddling in the election didn’t help either.

The city of Lafayette — the hub of the parish, center of its cultural life and economic driver where these underfunded assets are located — demonstrated through the April 29 vote on the renewals (though less so via the LPSS sales tax proposition) that it understands the value of shared sacrifice for the good of the parish. The rest of the parish more or less said, “Screw it, we got ours.”

And yet it is thousands of these same voters who live in the small towns and unincorporated Lafayette Parish who are happy to use the roads and bridges without a thought as they drive into the city of Lafayette for their jobs, shopping and recreation — or to the parish courthouse for their marriage licenses and other legal transactions — yet feel no responsibility for the infrastructure. Many others likely never step foot in the city of Lafayette, have never been to the parish courthouse, and rarely cross the corporate limit of the small town in which they live and work. For these parochials, “parishwide” is an abstraction. And many in both demographics send their kids to private schools and just don’t believe public education rewards everyone with a more robust economy, lower crime and higher quality of life. Combined, they were the margin that will set Lafayette Parish on a collision course with mediocrity — unless LCG puts these property taxes back on a ballot this year or early next (and they’re approved). — Walter Pierce