Inside Report: Livingston Parish grapples with a budget

Livingston Parish’s budget flap appears destined for the courtroom after both sides said an attorney general’s opinion is unlikely to sway their opponents’ views — or maybe even their own.

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux has sought a state attorney general’s opinion on whether the budget the Parish Council adopted Dec. 5 was legal and adopted validly.

Perrilloux has said the budget illegally omitted tax funds dedicated to the parish’s road overlay program, fees for the parish legal adviser and grants for ongoing projects.

The council also failed to properly inform the public of changes made to the advertised budget before its adoption and was late in relaying the budget adoption ordinance to the parish president for signature or veto, Perrilloux said.

Armed with Perrilloux’s legal opinion, Parish President Layton Ricks vetoed the council’s budget Dec. 19 and said the parish’s Home Rule Charter authorized him to proceed under his own proposed 2014 budget.

A majority of council members disagreed and, on Jan. 9, voted 6-3 to override Ricks’ veto and revive their adopted budget.

Ricks and Perrilloux have said the council cannot revive an illegal budget and that, under the parish’s charter, Ricks’ proposed budget has been adopted.

Council Chairman Ricky Goff has said even if the council’s budget were illegal — a point he disputes — the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act should trump the charter, and the parish should restrict itself to 50 percent of its 2013 budget until a new, compromise budget for 2014 can be adopted.

“He has his opinion, and I have mine,” Ricks said Friday.

The attorney general will have one as well. The question is whether it will settle the matter.

The two sides are not far apart on the actual budget numbers, they have said. But the dispute is no longer about the numbers.

Ricks and Goff each said they believe the attorney general’s opinion will support their own.

Both also said they doubt the other side would be satisfied if that’s the case.

“When the AG opinion comes back and says, for example, the council budget stands, will that be good enough for Layton or will he want to challenge it?” Goff asked Thursday.

“I don’t think the council will go along with it no matter what this opinion says,” Ricks said Friday. “I’ve heard them say too many times that an attorney general’s opinion is just an opinion.”

Neither Ricks nor Goff had a definitive answer as to how he would respond if the attorney general sided with his opponent.

Ricks said he would probably seek further counsel from Perrilloux.

Goff said a judge probably would have to decide.

“Really, I think at the end of the day we’ll just wind up in court for a declaratory judgment,” Ricks said.

But even a judge’s opinion can be appealed.

Councilman Marshall Harris, who was chairman when the council adopted its budget, said he doesn’t think the parish should go to court over this.

“I don’t feel like we have to spend more money just to get an opinion. Perrilloux already gave us an opinion, and now we’re getting another one,” Harris said.

Harris suggested seeking advice from the Legislative Auditor’s Office instead.

If none of these opinions can settle the issue, the court of public opinion almost certainly will.

In the end, that may be the only opinion that matters.

Heidi Kinchen covers Livingston Parish government for The Advocate. She can be reached at hkinchen@theadvocate.com.