Inside Report: Future taxes uncertain in Lafayette

By Richard Burgess

Acadiana bureau

The Lafayette City-Parish Council has, for the second time in a year, toyed with a major tax proposal — and then shelved it.

The council in November voted to ask city residents this April to increase the parks and recreation property tax from 1.92 mills to 7 mills.

Then a few members had a change of heart, and the council on Jan. 29 and voted unanimously to kill the measure.

Some members say the plan is now to step back, reflect and then bring voters a comprehensive plan that addresses all of city-parish government’s funding needs.

Lafayette city-parish government for the past few years has not brought in enough tax revenue to cover expenses, forcing officials to repeatedly draw down past years’ savings from the budget’s “fund balance.”

Those savings will hold out only for so long, and the problems are already being felt.

City-Parish President Joey Durel’s administration stripped funding for some 80 unfilled positions from the current year’s budget.

For the second year in a row, the budget also left out any money for a cost-of-living increase for city-parish government employees.

“We’re at a point where the budget can’t take in any more, and we need to do something,” Councilman Jay Castille said in an interview earlier this year.

Castille proposed last year a new half-cent sales tax to replace existing fire and police property taxes, generating an estimated $10 million more a year in new revenue.

Most of Castille’s fellow council members agreed more money is needed for public safety, but opted against moving forward with the half-cent sales tax, pledging to have a fuller discussion of whether the money should come from a new sales tax, increases in property taxes or cuts to other areas of the budget.

That discussion has yet to happen, at least not in a public forum.

Now, Castille and others are hoping to reignite that discussion on a much larger scale, looking not only at public safety or recreation but at all of city-parish government.

It remains to be seen what might emerge, if anything.

The city-parish administration has been gun-shy about tax proposals after voters in November 2006 soundly defeated a 1-cent sales tax proposition for roads and drainage and a property tax increase for a new parish courthouse.

To this day, some city-parish officials still reference that defeat when talk of any new tax proposal emerges.

But only four years earlier, in 2002, voters approved four tax proposals in one election — a new 1-cent sales tax in unincorporated areas of the parish for the Sheriff’s Office, an increase in the parish library property tax and two new property taxes for public safety, one for police pay raises and the other to bump up pay for firefighters.

Recent tax elections, however, have seen mixed results.

In 2011, voters in Youngsville approved a new 1-cent sales tax for recreation, and voters in the neighboring city of Broussard passed a half-cent recreation sales tax.

But a proposal in 2011 by the Lafayette Parish School Board for a 25-mill construction and maintenance property tax suffered a resounding defeat when 69 percent of voters cast ballots against the measure.

Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper is already talking about possibly returning to voters this year with a scaled-down tax proposal.

Whether the City-Parish Council and the administration can settle on a proposal acceptable to voters for city-parish government remains to be seen.

Acadiana Bureau Chief Richard Burgess covers Lafayette city-parish government. He can be reached at rburgess@theadvocate.com.