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FIFTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT BUDGET CRISIS

By David A. Blanchet, Chief Judge

 

With the failure of the recent tax renewals, the Bar is sure to have questions concerning the maintenance and upkeep of the Lafayette Parish Courthouse and Correctional Center, as well as funding of the court system.  State law is clear that parish governments are mandated to provide funds to operate district courts.[1]  Lafayette Parish has a consolidated form of government; the governing structure of Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) is by home rule charter, and the governing authority is the Lafayette City Parish Consolidated Council, consisting of nine members elected from nine single member districts.  The Charter requires the budgets of the City of Lafayette and the Parish be kept separate; funds from the City cannot be expended for Parish expenses and vice versa.[2]  In Lafayette Parish, the Fifteenth Judicial District Court (Court) is partially funded from the parish general fund by a 1¢ sales tax collected in the unincorporated areas of the Parish.[3]  Thus, whenever a municipality in the Parish (City of Lafayette, Carencro, Scott, Broussard, Youngsville, and Duson) annexes an unincorporated area of the parish, the parish loses its 1¢ sales tax from that area.  Further complicating the funding is the downturn in the oil industry and its resultant 34% drop in sales tax collection in the unincorporated areas of the Parish.[4] 

 

In late April 2016, the Court was informed by LCG that drastic mid-year cuts would be made to the budgets of the Court and the District Attorney for the fiscal year 2015-2016 (November 1 to October 31).  On May 2, 2016, the Court received a proposed ordinance which was to be introduced to the LCG Council on May 17, 2016, defunding all eight (8) judges’ secretaries in Lafayette Parish; the secretaries were listed by name in the ordinance.  The Court viewed this ordinance as an unconstitutional intrusion by LCG into Court operations.[5] 

 

The Court met with City Parish President Joel Robideaux and other members of the administration to express its dismay with the lack of communication with the Judges to discuss the budget shortfall or the proposed ordinance.  The Court also sent a letter to LCG on May 17, 2016 , addressing problems with the ordinance.  As a result of these efforts, the ordinance was amended to essentially defund Lafayette Parish’s share (58%)[6] of the cost of the twelve (12) law clerks[7] in the District, rather than the defunding of the eight (8) Lafayette Parish Judges’ secretaries.  A portion of the law clerks’ salaries and retirement benefits has always been paid by the Criminal Court Fund (CCF), with the three (3) parish governments each paying their proportionate share of the balance.[8]  The Court was left with the choice of either terminating some or all of the twelve (12) law clerks in the District or using alternative funding sources to make up the shortfall. 

 

The Judicial Expense Fund (JEF) contains money derived from civil court costs.  This fund may be used to pay for certain expenses for the Judges and their staffs, including costs for technology, law libraries, etc.  This fund was established to be supplemental in nature and “is in addition to any and all of the funds, salaries or expenses, or other monies that are now and hereinafter provided, authorized, or established by law.”[9] The Court also has the Child Support Fund (CSF) which can only be used to fund an expedited process for the establishment of paternity and the establishment and enforcement of support and other related family and domestic matters in district courts using hearing officers.[10]  The CSF pays the expenses of operating Family Court in the District which includes the salaries and retirement benefits of the four (4) hearing officers and their staffs along with office expenses.

 

 Through responsible stewardship both the JEF and CSF have cash reserves.  In order to avoid lay-offs of judicial law clerks, the Court voted to fund LCG’s proportionate share of the salaries and retirement contributions for ten (10) judicial law clerks from the JEF.[11]  As to the two (2) Family Court law clerks, the Court voted to fund LCG’s proportionate share of those salaries and retirement contributions from the CSF.[12]  This funding arrangement was to last through October 31, 2016 (the end of the LCG fiscal year). It should be noted that only the portions of the JEF and CSF derived from Lafayette Parish were utilized, as Acadia and Vermilion Parishes were fully funding their proportionate shares of the court system. 

 

            On May 24, 2016, five (5) judges attended the LCG Council meeting to hear the report of the Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee[13].  This Committee, formed approximately two (2) years earlier by Council members Jay Castille and Kevin Naquin, was comprised of five (5) business people from Lafayette Parish tasked with addressing parish revenue issues.  With reference to the court system, it is important to note that no member of the Committee, the Council or the administration spoke with any of the judges or court administrative staff in preparing the report nor did they request any data.  As a result, the report is fraught with inaccuracies and misleading information.  The report also makes recommendations that could not pass constitutional muster.  The language in the report purports to pressure the Court to increase the amount of the fines imposed and the collection of such fines to finance the Court’s operational costs.[14]  Courts that fail to adhere to constitutional standards become “conflicted courts”; several adverse consequences befall communities with conflicted courts.  The Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee Report was posted on the LCG City Parish Council webpage immediately following the meeting.  The Court responded to the contents of this report in letters of June 1, 2016 , July 8, 2016 , and January 30, 2017 .  In all correspondence the Court respectfully requests that the erroneous report be removed from the LCG website.  In the alternative, the Court requests that its letters of clarification be posted.  To date, the report remains posted; no annotations or references to the Court letters or protestations are noted.

 

In early August 2016, the Court was informed that LCG would not fully fund Lafayette Parish’s proportionate share of certain reasonable Court expenses formerly paid by LCG or its proportionate share of the law clerks’ salaries and retirement contributions for the fiscal year 2016-2017.  The Court again voted to use the Lafayette Parish portion of the reserves in the JEF and the CSF to supplement the Lafayette budget shortfall.[15]  As noted in case law, the existence of these supplemental funds “suggests a need for cooperative intergovernmental relations,”[16] thus, the Court also voted to seek a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) with LCG.  CEA’s are supported by the jurisprudence and statutory law.[17]  A proposed CEA was forwarded by the Court to LCG under cover of a letter dated August 16, 2016 .  The proposed CEA called for LCG to acknowledge that the defunded expenses, which had always been funded by LCG, are reasonable and necessary to the operation of the Court.  In exchange for the Court supplementing these expenses on a temporary basis, LCG would do everything in its power to fix the current Parish budget problem. The Court committed to assisting LCG in any and every effort to resolve this problem within the bounds of judicial ethics. The Court also informed LCG in its letter that the supplements from the JEF and CSF were unsustainable over time. 

 

After receiving no response, and after telephone calls and emails to City Parish President Joel Robideaux and the City Parish Attorney went unanswered, the Court again wrote the administration on January 30, 2017 , setting a deadline for the Court to be contacted concerning LCG’s interest in exploring a CEA.  The Court was contacted in a timely fashion by an attorney on behalf of LCG.  A two (2) hour plus meeting between the Chief Judge and this attorney took place on February 22, 2017.  The Chief Judge made it clear that if a sustained effort was not made to conclude the CEA, or if steps were not taken to correct the parish revenue problem, an article would be submitted to “The Promulgator” to inform the Bar of the situation.  As of the writing of this article (May 19, 2017) the Court has received no further contact from this attorney or LCG.

 

For the fiscal year 2017 (calendar year), Acadia Parish reduced all Parish salaries by 10% and defunded its proportionate share of the law clerks.  The Court is covering this portion of the law clerk salaries and retirement benefits from the Acadia portion of the JEF and CSF.[18]  Acadia Parish has entered into a CEA with the Court acknowledging the reasonableness of these expenses and agreeing to work with the Court on restoring these cuts.  Again, Acadia Parish officials have been informed, and do acknowledge, that continued use of the JEF and CSF to supplement the Parish budget is unsustainable. 

 

On April 29, 2017, two (2) dedicated property tax renewals were rejected by voters, one (1) for the “courthouse complex” and the other for the Parish jail.  When the “courthouse complex” millage was originally passed, the jail was located on the 7th floor of the courthouse.  This tax generated approximately $5.2 million dollars per year in funds.  However, because the jail’s separate dedicated millage which generated $4.2 million dollars per year was inadequate, every year LCG diverted $4.1 million of the “courthouse complex” tax millage collections to the jail.  This left only $1.1 million dollars annually for the courthouse building itself.[19]  Despite the fact that the jail has long since ceased to be located within the courthouse building, LCG, over the protests of the judges and the Clerk of Court, has continued to interpret “courthouse complex” to include the jail.  By failing to renew both the “courthouse complex” tax and the jail tax on April 29, 2017, the voters essentially defunded the jail by $8.3 million dollars and the courthouse by $1.1 million dollars annually.  Nevertheless, the Parish is mandated to pay for a “suitable building and requisite furniture,” together with utilities for districts courts,[20] and a “good and sufficient” courthouse and jail.”[21]

 

On May 5, 2017, an article appeared in the Daily Advertiser entitled, “Will failed jail, courthouse tax renewals hurt drainage, roads?”  In discussing comments by Lorrie Toups, Chief Financial Officer for LCG, the article states, “In 2016, parish officials cut funding to judges and district attorney’s office amid a debate over what constitutes ‘reasonable and necessary expenses.’” At no time was there any discussion, much less debate, with LCG regarding the reasonableness or necessity of Court expenses.[22]  Instead, LCG unilaterally cut the Court and the District Attorney’s office specifically noting both entities had cash reserves in supplementary funds. 

 

The Court has conducted itself in good faith in all of its dealings with LCG.  At a presentation to the Council and administration in May of 2016, the Court indicated that it would open its books, make a full disclosure of its finances, work with the LCG to solve the budget crisis, and publicly support an adequately funded court system within the bounds of judicial ethics.  The Court has honored its pledge and remains willing to do so.  Unfortunately, the Court has seen little evidence thus far that LCG is committed to adequately funding the judicial branch of government,[23] [24]  or to even discuss its obligation with the Court.  In fact, the budget situation has worsened with the failure of the tax renewals.

 

While giving LCG the time to address its budget problems, the Court is exhausting its reserves at an alarming rate.  If there are no further budget cuts to the Court by LCG, the Lafayette Parish portion of the JEF will be depleted by early 2019.  With the existing cuts, Acadia’s portion of the JEF will be depleted by the end of 2017.  Though the CSF will last longer, it can only be used to fund the two (2) Family Court law clerk positions.  Also, since Family Court is in need of an additional hearing officer to meet the deadlines imposed by law to dispose of child support and paternity matters,[25] the CSF will soon be depleted as well.  If the LCG budget cuts to the Court are not restored and the supplemental funds are depleted, there will be significant staff lay-offs resulting in a reduction of services to the public.  A functioning judicial system and jail are necessary to protect the safety and the civil rights of all Lafayette Parish residents.  As a last resort, the Court can institute a mandamus action against LCG to reform its budget to provide Court expenses which are reasonable and necessary to the function and administration of the Court.[26] While such actions have proven successful in other districts, the additional expense to the Parish is lamentable.  Instead, the Court implores LCG to address its obligations to provide adequate funding by entering into meaningful and serious discussion with its co-equal branch of government.     

 

All of the letters written by the Court to Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) are posted on the Court’s website, https://15thjdc.org/site1.php.  No letters from LCG are on the website as they have failed to respond to the Court in writing.  The website also contains a summary of a presentation made by the Court to LCG addressing the Parish revenue problems.



[1] The Parish’s duty to fund these statutorily mandated expenses is limited by the standard of reasonableness.  McCain v. Grant Parish Police Jury, 440 So.2d 1369 (La. App. 3 Cir. 11/9/83)

[2] The other municipalities in the Parish do not participate in Lafayette Consolidated Government.

[3] A general alimony property tax established by the Louisiana State Constitution also provides revenue to the Parish general fund.

[4] Video: “Presentation: Lafayette Parish Property Taxes – an Evaluation,” LCG website, City-Parish Council webpage, http://lafayettela.gov/council/pages/default.aspxNote: Acadia Parish has also sustained a reduction in revenue, mostly related to a decrease in the severance tax on Parish owned properties. 

[5] Art. II, § 2, Louisiana State Constitution

[6] Acadia Parish’s share is 25%; Vermilion Parish’s share is 17%.

[7] A thirteenth law clerk is paid by the State of Louisiana for the Commissioner, who is state funded.  See R.S. 13:715(E).

[8] The CCF contains money derived from criminal fines and forfeitures and is shared by the Court and the District Attorney (R.S. 13:996.26).  The CCF has never generated enough money to pay all of parishes’ shares of the law clerks and other Court expenses.

[9] R.S. 13:996.26

[10] Payees of child support pay a collection fee which is deposited by the State into the CSF totaling 5% of child support paid by them through the non-support system in the District (R.S. 46:236.5).

[11] A total of $123,000 from June 16 to October 31, 2016.

[12] A total of $25,000 from June 16 to October 31, 2016.

[13] “LCG Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee Final Report/Recommendations,” LCG website, City Parish Council webpage, http://lafayettela.gov/council/pages/default.aspx  

[14] Id.  Page 13-14

[15] For LCG’s fiscal year 2016-2017 (November 1 to October 31) the total budget cut is $390,000; $317,000 to be paid from the JEF and $73,000 paid from the CSF.

[16] Reed v. Washington Parish Police Jury, 518 So.2d 1044 (La. 1/18/88)

[17] Art. IV, § 20, Louisiana State Constitution; R.S. 33:1324, et seq.

[18] For Acadia’s fiscal year 2017 (January 1 to December 31) the total budget cut is $172,000; $140,000 to be paid from the JEF and $32,000 to be paid from the CSF. 

[19] Video: “Presentation: Lafayette Parish Property Taxes – an Evaluation,” LCG website, City-Parish Council webpage, http://lafayettela.gov/council/pages/default.aspx

[20] R.S. 33:4713

[21] R.S. 33:4715

[22] City Parish President Joel Robideaux stated during the “Robideaux Report” on March 30, 2017, that no one would be happier than him to restore the cuts to the Court and the District Attorney.

[23] City Parish President Joel Robideaux offered no solutions to the Parish budget problems during the “Robideaux Report” on March 30, 2017, other than to state that he hoped the local economy would improve.

[24] “I don't know how you fix it." LCG Council member Kevin Naquin quoted in an article entitled, “Lafayette Parish is ‘going bankrupt,’” published in The Advertiser on May 18, 2017.

[25] R.S. 46:236.5(A)

[26] McCain case, supra.


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