Inside Report for Wednesday, June 19, 2013

By Richard Burgess

Acadiana bureau

Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel’s plan to have a blue-ribbon committee dig into city-parish government’s finances appears to have died a quiet death.

The committee, announced at Durel’s annual State of the Parish address in February, was to take a comprehensive look at the community’s needs and then point out ways to pay for priorities.

But Durel said in a recent interview he had called together a handful of potential committee members to talk but then abandoned the idea because he felt it might be a waste of time.

Durel’s hope for the committee was to bring together a group of residents to look at city-parish finances and then explain to the public at large why local government is having trouble paying for things such as new roads, more firefighters or a robust park system.

But Durel, a Republican and former businessman in his third and final term as city-parish president, has turned a bit pessimistic about the prospects of having such a frank conversation about government finances, and he is not hopeful such a conversation will begin until people start feeling the impact of a tight budget — closed parks, a weaker police force, bigger potholes.

Durel said he believes part of the problem is the inability of most members of the public to understand the complexity of government finances — he has even used the term “clueless” more than once to describe the conservative anti-tax crowd in the parish.

There is surely some truth in the assessment that most residents don’t understand the peculiar difficulties of government budgets, but the issues are by no means inscrutable.

The main difference between the budgets of government and private business is that government has only one main way to make money — raising taxes and fees — and is limited to very unpopular options for reducing expenses — laying off employees and cutting services.

Dedicated property taxes can also be an issue, especially in Lafayette.

The property tax for mosquito control, for example, brings in a lot more money than is needed to control mosquitoes, but it cannot be used for anything else, like parks and recreation, which has a property tax that does not bring in nearly enough money to keep up with recreation expenses.

“It would be much easier for Lafayette to live within its means,” Durel said, if voter-approved legal restrictions on where tax money can be spent were removed.

Even Durel admits that, as a citizen, he might be wary of removing those tax dedications and giving elected officials the freedom to spend the money wherever they see fit.

Surely Lafayette residents are open to sensible solutions, and despite the “anti-tax” generalization about residents here, voters in the area have given their blessing to new taxes.

In 2011, voters approved new sales taxes in Youngsville and Broussard to pay for recreation complexes in their respective cities.

Lafayette officials, on the other hand, have been talking about parks and recreation funding for at least five years but have yet to get their arms around the issue.

It’s true that most residents probably don’t have a solution to all financial problems of city-parish government and don’t want to spend a great deal of time researching them, but then again, that’s why people create governments and elect leaders.

Richard Burgess is the Acadiana bureau chief for The Advocate. He can be reached at rburgess@theadvocate.com.