St. Tammany coroner sues to keep control of finances

A defiant St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan filed suit Thursday challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that strips him of financial control of his office by requiring that he transfer all property tax proceeds to the parish except for the amount needed to operate for the rest of the calendar year.

Galvan sued the state and parish in 19th Judicial District Court Baton Rouge late Wednesday, a day after Gov. Bobby Jindal signed HB 561 into law.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said Thursday that parish officials considered the measure carefully before it was filed and were satisfied that it was constitutional. They knew that a legal challenge was possible, she said, but had hoped the coroner would not fight it in court.

Now, Brister said, the parish faces the expense of hiring outside counsel to defend the measure. The parish is typically represented by the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney’s Office, but that office has recused itself from matters concerning the coroner.

Galvan, who spent nearly $100,0000 on lawyers in February and March of this year alone, has hired yet another law firm, Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann LLC, to challenge the new law.

The legislation, authored by Rep. Tim Burns, followed months of controversy over spending at the Coroner’s Office, including a skyrocketing payroll and allegations that public money was spent on travel, groceries and two take-home cars for the coroner. A federal grand jury and the Legislative Auditor are investigating spending in the office.

Burns said it was clear to him that something needed to be done, and that’s why he authored the legislation. He met several times with parish officials, he said, and the bill “got broader and broader as the scandal kept unfolding,’’ he said.

Burns said he was not surprised by the coroner’s legal challenge, since Melanie Comeaux, who was then in-house counsel for the coroner, raised constitutionality questions in testimony before the Legislature. She has since resigned.

Galvan did not return a call for comment.

But the lawsuit describes Galvan’s management of the office as shrewd, and claims, among other things, that by establishing competitive salaries for key personnel, he was able to avoid the high turnover that plagues other crime labs. The suit also points to the fact that the coroner has accumulated more than $5 million in reserves as further evidence of Galvan’s management prowess.

The high reserve fund has come under fire from critics who see it as evidence that the 4-mill property tax that voters approved for the coroner’s office in 2007 was more than what is needed to run the office. It has since been rolled back to 3.5 mills due to property reassessments.

Burns described the 20-page lawsuit as mostly “fluff.’’ The argument that the law diminishes salary benefits — which the constitution forbids for coroners and a handful of other elected officials during their terms of office — doesn’t hold up, Burns said, because the law does not lower the coroner’s salary. Galvan earns about $200,000 a year.

The lawsuit also claims that in authorizing the St. Tammany Parish Council to set the coroner’s salary it is authorized “to alter, reduce or otherwise diminish’’ that salary during the coroner’s term of office.

The lawsuit cites a cooperative endeavor agreement signed by the parish and the coroner in November 2007 as part of an earlier legislative change that gave the coroner more control over his finances. That contract is still in effect, the lawsuit says, and the new law unconstitutionally impairs it.

In addition, the suit claims that the law creates an unconstitutional diversion of a dedicated tax.

Burns pointed out that the lawsuit doesn’t seek an injunction or temporary restraining order that would prevent the law from going into effect immediately. Brister sent a letter to Galvan on Thursday that said, in part, “we need to begin the dialogue toward the expedient transfer of information, assets and immovable property.’’

The letter set a June 17 deadline for response.

Brister said that the coroner’s decision to sue may delay the parish’s efforts to determine how much money is needed to run the office and satisfy its financial obligations — information that’s needed to deliver on a promise made by the Parish Council to further roll back the coroner’s property tax.

The coroner’s 2013 budget shows that approximately $4.4 million could be received from the property tax in future years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

In addition to requiring Galvan to turn over property tax revenue, the law also requires the parish government to approve any contracts or purchase agreements.