LIVINGSTON — Livingston Parish government’s general fund could run out of money by next year, Director of Finance Jennifer A. Meyers said Tuesday.
That would require a reduction in services, Parish President Layton Ricks said.
He said when he came into office he knew finances were tight, but the degree is becoming clearer as he and his finance director have begun studying the details.
The failure of the parish’s jail and utility funds to adequately pay for their operations is rapidly eating away the general fund, Meyers said.
The biggest problem is the cost of operating the parish jail, the finance director said.
The fund that pays for the operation of the jail has run more than $1 million in the red for three years in a row and has had to be bailed out by the general fund, Meyers said.
Though the Sheriff’s Office provides manpower for the jail, parish government is responsible for the other expenses, she said.
The jail is funded by 25 percent of a one-cent sales tax, which isn’t enough to pay back the bonds sold to build the jail and also pay for its operating cost, Meyers said.
Each year, feeding and maintaining prisoners costs $950,000, drugs and other medical costs run $289,000 and utilities cost $300,000, Myers said. The annual debt on the bonds sold to finance the jail is another $1.7 million.
Those costs are running about the same this year, she said.
The parish is mandated by the state to pay those costs, she said, adding that the only answer she sees is some additional funding mechanism to operate the jail, but she doesn’t know what that would be.
Several years ago the parish had to bear the additional cost of sending overflow prisoners to jails in other parishes, but it has been a long time since that has been necessary, said Jim Brown, the warden of the Livingston Parish Detention Center.
Marshall Harris, chairman of the Parish Council’s Finance Committee, said he’s been concerned about jail costs for years.
“That jail is just a cancer,” he said.
Harris said he’s also wants to see the parish’s utilities pay for themselves.
That’s going to require a change in rate structure, and it will mean forcing people to pay their bills, he said.
Last year, the general fund had to put up more than $600,000 for the utility fund, which is responsible for five sewer systems and two water systems, Myers said.
Ricks said the parish is now faced with the additional costs of upgrading some of those systems to meet the requirements of the Department of Environmental Quality.
When rising health care costs for employees are factored into the parish’s expenses, the picture becomes even bleaker, Myers said.
Ricks acknowledged that legal fees, including those to defend a $53 million law suit against the parish by its contractor in the Hurricane Gustav cleanup, are also concerns.
The general fund lost about $2 million last year and is down to about $1.8 million in actual reserves when its liabilities from the shortfalls of other funds are considered, she said.
The annual general fund budget is less than $8 million.
“We will have to tighten the belt where we can,” Ricks said. “We need to be more responsible in how we spend our taxpayers’ dollars.”
He said he wants to put better accounting principles in place and “get our health insurance under control.”
He said he is looking at several health care options, and the Parish Council “will have to be involved in everything.”
“I feel like I have inherited a very tight budget, and just now the picture is becoming clear,” Ricks said.
He took over as parish president in January.