Lafayette to cut back on funding for parish drainage, road projects

City-parish budget projections zero out funding for new drainage projects in rural areas of the parish come 2016, and the prospects for new roads and overlay work don’t look too good either.

Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel introduced his administration’s proposed budget on Thursday for the fiscal year that begins Nov. 1. It’s a largely upbeat document, with the notable exception of how much money will be available for new road, bridge and drainage capital projects in the unincorporated areas of the parish beyond Lafayette’s city limits.

By 2016, money is still available for maintenance work, but cash for new drainage projects drops to zero.

Capital money for rural roads and bridges totals $1.5 million in 2016 then slips down $750,000 in 2017, barely enough for a handful of overlay projects.

“It should be clear to anyone examining the funding structure for the parish that it is time for a change,” Durel wrote in his budget message to council members this past week. “There is a train wreck coming if something isn’t fixed.”

The issue, at its basic level, is a lack of sufficient tax revenue from unincorporated areas to pay for the roads, ditches and other infrastructure needed for the residential developments filling the rural landscape.

The problem intensified with Durel’s decision last year to end the practice of using money from the city of Lafayette’s general fund to help pay personnel expenses for Public Works Department employees doing work outside the city limits.

The budgetary dividing line between “city” and “parish” in city-parish government is a significant one.

The once-separate city and parish governments were consolidated in 1996, but city and parish residents pay different tax rates and the finances for city and parish are separate. Durel argues it is inappropriate for city taxpayers — who pay more in taxes — to continue subsidizing work outside the city limits.

“Consolidation has allowed ‘parish’ government to operate beyond its means and has prevented ‘city’ government from operating within its available means,” Durel wrote to councilmen.

Still, ending the city’s subsidy to parish government — worth about a few million dollars annually — is not what ails the unincorporated parts of the parish, said Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups.

Subsidy or not, she said, there isn’t enough money.

One solution proposed by Durel is to undo consolidation, which wouldn’t solve the money problem but would leave a stand-alone parish government to deal with the financial issues on its own.

But the majority of the council has been lukewarm to idea of undoing or even tweaking consolidated government, and voters in 2011 soundly rejected a proposal to split, with 63 percent casting ballots against the measure.

Durel’s budget message on Thursday also mentioned the possibility of special taxing districts, where voters in different areas of the parish could pass new taxes dedicated to addressing particular issues, such as drainage.

City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille, who represents a large rural constituency in northern Lafayette Parish, said he sees few options other than new taxes, which he acknowledged would be a tough sell to his fellow council members and to voters.

Castille said he has some questions about the administration’s dire projections of what’s available for future road and drainage work, but he does not dispute the big-picture financial problem.

“The only solution, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, is we are going to have to tax ourselves to get the money we need to do the projects people want,” Castille said. “Everybody knows we need taxes to provide the services we want.”

Councilman William Theriot, who represents a large chunk of rural southern Lafayette Parish, said he has concerns about how much money from the parish road, bridge and drainage funds has been shifted back to the city, and he is not convinced new taxes are the only option.

“Before I have any discussion about raising taxes, I want to make sure that government is doing everything possible to raise money for roads, drainage and bridges,” Theriot said.

Taxes, he added, “are not in my vocabulary.”

Castille said he hopes solutions will emerge from the city-parish Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee, a citizens advisory group created by the City-Parish Council in February to map out strategies to address the needs of local government.

The group is expected to make its recommendations by year’s end.

The property taxes for the parish’s roads, bridges and drainage work bring in a total of about $14.2 million a year.

The City-Parish Council will begin reviewing Durel’s proposed budget line by line in a series of public hearings that begin Tuesday.

The proposed budget totals $604.5 million, but the bulk of that is the city-owned utilities system and restricted tax money the council has little control over.

What’s up for discussion over the next few weeks is the roughly $113 million in the city and parish general funds.