Reserve fund expected to hit $8.2 million
LAFAYETTE — Property taxes that bring in too much money are rarely an issue for local government, but the Lafayette Parish millage dedicated to the public health unit brings in about three times more money than is spent each year.
Some ideas have emerged in recent weeks for how to spend that money.
“People have seen the money we have, and they want to grab it,” said City-Parish President Joey Durel, who earlier this year proposed suspending the collection of the .94-mill public health tax and dipping into savings from prior years to fund the Lafayette Parish Public Health Unit.
The tax money is legally restricted for spending related to public health clinics, and the extra revenue has been set aside in a reserve fund that is expected to climb to about $8.2 million by the end of the year, according to budget figures from city-parish government.
According to budget projections, that reserve fund could continue growing by a rate a more than $1 million a year, because the health tax brings in about $1.7 million a year but city-parish government spends only about $565,000 to help pay expenses at the state-run health unit at the Clifton Chenier Center on Willow Street.
Two proposals are now on the table that would tap into that unused pot of money.
Dr. Tina Stefanski, the regional director for the state Office of Public Health, made a pitch during a city-parish budget hearing Thursday for more staff at the health unit, which has fallen victim to state cutbacks.
In a separate proposal, Lafayette Parish School Superintendent Pat Cooper has begun conversations with city-parish officials about using some of the health unit tax dollars to help fund school-based health clinics.
The City-Parish Council has taken no formal action on either issue and Durel said it is too early for him to weigh in definitively on the proposals.
Durel said he generally supports proper staffing at the parish health unit but does not want the state to keep pulling back funding with the expectation that local government will fill in the gap.
On the school clinics proposal, the city-parish president said he is interested in some form of partnership with the school system if the school-based clinics could also serve the surrounding community.
“It would be a way to show that the school system and Lafayette Consolidated Government are working together,” Durel said.
But Durel said that city-parish government should avoid going from having a surplus in health unit dollars to not having enough.
“We can’t do everything that’s being asked of us right now,” he said.
City-Parish Council Chairman Brandon Shelvin said he plans to support adding about $500,000 to the health unit budget to hire five new nurses and two clerks.
“She (Stefanski) is down to three nurses, and that is not enough to serve the people,” Shelvin said.
Shelvin was more cautious about a partnership with the school system to help fund health clinics, saying he wanted to ensure city-parish government will not assume a disproportionate share of the expenses.
“If we are going to form a partnership, each partner in a normal business relationship brings something to the table,” Shelvin said.
Superintendent Cooper said the general idea, which is still a work in progress, is to have school-based health clinics at every high school in the parish — part of an overall school turnaround plan.
Those clinics also could stay open after hours and on weekends to serve the communities around the schools, he said.
Health centers are already in place a Northside High School and Carencro Middle.
Cooper said addressing the wide range of physical and mental issues that some children face is critical to improving the parish school system.
“Health is a huge issue for the community, but it doesn’t begin at 40. It begins when you’re in school,” Cooper said.
The School Board and the City-Parish Council were scheduled to meet on Aug. 28 to discuss the idea, but that meeting has been called off because several School Board members could not attend.
No new meeting date has been set.