Attorney General opinion favors Ricks budget over Livingston Council budget

Parish Council failed to follow charter

“I think we’ve covered our flanks as far as from an auditing standpoint. We’ve got an AG opinion now telling us that we don’t have to follow the state budget act, so while I disagree with that, at least we’ve got something to point to if the auditors say we should’ve followed it.” Ricky Goff, council chairman

The state Attorney General’s Office has weighed in, and the Livingston Parish Council’s adopted budget for 2014 is out.

According to an opinion issued late Thursday, Parish President Layton Ricks’ proposed budget will govern parish spending for 2014 because the council failed to follow the parish’s Home Rule Charter in adopting its budget.

Ricks and the council have been at odds over this year’s spending plan since December, when the council adopted a slashed version of the budget Ricks proposed in September.

Ricks declared the council’s budget illegal, vetoed it in its entirety and said he would proceed instead under his own proposed budget.

The council overrode that veto in January, but Ricks refused to recognize the override as legitimate.

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, who had written a seven-page legal opinion in support of Ricks’ veto, sought an attorney general’s opinion on Ricks’ behalf in February to settle the matter.

The AG opinion, faxed to parish legal adviser Christopher Moody at 4:13 p.m. Thursday and emailed to parish officials shortly thereafter, says the Parish Council failed to deliver its budget adoption ordinance to the parish president within three days of its Dec. 5 adoption, as required under the parish’s charter.

That missed deadline rendered the ordinance, and the budget it embodied, invalid, Assistant Attorney General Michael J. Vallan says in the opinion.

Under the parish charter, if the council fails to adopt a budget by the end of the year, the parish president’s proposed budget is considered adopted.

Because that charter provision does not conflict with state law or the minimum standards set by the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act, the charter controls which budget will prevail, Vallan wrote.

The opinion does not address other potential legal problems Perrilloux cited with the council’s adopted budget, such as the omission of funds for roadwork, legal fees and ongoing projects, as well as numerous last-minute, line-item changes that were not fully explained to the public prior to adoption.

Ricks said Friday he was “tickled to death about the AG opinion, but in reality, all it means is that we just keep working and moving forward.

“We’ve said since the beginning that we had a good annual budget,” Ricks said, noting that Moody, Perrilloux and Finance Director Jennifer Meyers were all in agreement.

“My hope is certainly that this is over now and we can put it to rest,” Ricks said. “I guess we’ll know after my meeting with Ricky (Goff) next week.”

Goff, the council chairman, said Friday that although he disagrees with the attorney general’s opinion, he doesn’t know if it would be worth the parish’s time and money to go to court over it.

“I think we’ve covered our flanks as far as from an auditing standpoint,” Goff said. “We’ve got an AG opinion now telling us that we don’t have to follow the state budget act, so while I disagree with that, at least we’ve got something to point to if the auditors say we should’ve followed it.”

Goff said he continues to believe that if the council failed to validly adopt a budget, the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act requires the parish government to operate on 50 percent of its 2013 budget until a new 2014 budget can be approved.

Goff again pushed for a compromise budget during the council Finance Committee’s 5:45 p.m. meeting Thursday, telling fellow council members that the Attorney General’s Office wanted parish officials to work things out amongst themselves, “instead of them having to give an opinion.”

Records show that Goff — along with Ricks, Perrilloux and Council Clerk Lisa Frederick — had received an emailed copy of the attorney general’s opinion from Moody an hour and a half earlier, at 4:20 p.m., but Goff said Friday he did not see the email until after the meeting ended.

“We still need to sit down and agree to amend the budget in a couple places,” Goff said Friday, referring specifically to line items dealing with attorney fees, the parish’s road overlay program and animal control operating expenses.

Ricks said he is willing to sit down and talk with Goff but the parish already has a valid annual budget.