Crime lab faces uncertain future without more funds

The crime lab that analyzes DNA, blood, fingerprints and other evidence for Acadiana law enforcement agencies faces an uncertain future if more money cannot be found to shore up the lab’s budget.

“We don’t have the revenue to make it through 2015,” Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory Director Kevin Ardoin said.

Ardoin sounded the alarm at a recent meeting of the commission that oversees the facility, telling a group of area prosecutors, law enforcement leaders and legislators that the lab will need a supplement of at least $500,000 a year and possibly upwards of $1 million.

The funding crisis comes as the lab has been making steady progress in reducing the backlog and wait time for evidence processing, said 16th Judicial District Attorney Phil Haney, whose office handles prosecutions in Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes.

He said the need for a local lab that can quickly handle evidence in criminal cases is critical.

“It’s the lives of people in this community,” Haney said. “If we lose this, we are going backwards 1,000 percent.”

The crime lab, in New Iberia, serves eight parishes in the Acadiana region and is funded largely through court costs paid by people convicted of criminal charges, with most of the money coming from traffic tickets.

Court cost collections have gradually declined in recent years, forcing the crime lab to repeatedly dip into prior year’s savings to offset the drop in revenue. The lab this year tapped its savings to the tune of $500,000, and projections for 2014 call for the use of another $640,000 from the reserves, according to budget figures.

That would leave the lab with about $635,000 remaining in the reserve account to plug budget holes in 2015 and dim prospects heading into 2016.

Ardoin said he hopes to secure a more stable revenue source than court costs, which have been subject to wide swings up and down over the years. The crime lab faced similar funding problems about 10 years ago and had to solicit area law enforcement agencies for money to keep afloat.

The state Legislature in 2007 approved a bump in court costs to help fund the crime lab in Acadiana and similar labs in other parts of the state. That measure helped the local lab for a few years before court costs collections began dipping.

Ardoin said pushing up the court costs again might not be a viable option.

For one, court costs have proven to be an unreliable source of revenue, and legislators might be reluctant to hike the fees again so soon after the last increase.

“When we went through it back in 2007, it was a pretty tough sell,” Ardoin said.

One funding strategy being considered is to pull some revenue from the state’s video poker and casino industry.

Haney said it seems a reasonable source, considering his office spends a lot of time dealing with thefts, burglaries and other crimes he believes are linked to gambling.

“Because gambling is here, we have crime. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

State Sen. Brett Allain, R-Franklin, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, said he was sympathetic to the needs of the crime lab.

But, he said, finding state money will be tough, whether it comes from gambling or some other source.

He told members of the crime lab commission last week that unless they could identify some new source of revenue, the crime lab would have to compete with a long list of other state needs.

“We cannot pass a budget that is out of balance,” Allain said. “This idea that you don’t want to take anything from anybody else, that’s not the way it works up there.”