by Elliott Stonecipher
A week and a day ago, Caddo Parish taxpayers defeated both ballot propositions from and by our Caddo Parish Commission. No official response from the Commission has yet been communicated, likely due to its shock: no one seems able to remember the last time voters here rejected such a property tax renewal, or any other tax. Many of the informal reactions, however, as reported to me from various officials and others, have been all too typical for and from today’s officialdom. Some obscene and some not, included among those are threats to the people of Caddo Parish to prepare for service reductions, elimination of Commission funds to local charities, large tax increases on the ballot for a different voter demography next year, and so forth.
These are not reactions of “stewards of the public trust.” Neither are they appropriate, proportional, wise … or justified.
First, a bit of context to go with the rancor.
The first ballot proposition defeated by fewer than 7% of Caddo Parish registered voters would have extended “term limits” for Commissioners to 5 terms of 4 years each, from 3 terms of 4 years each. The proposition went down by a 2:1 margin, owing to its absurdity, if nothing else. Yes, two-thirds of Caddo voters refused to have it said that Caddo Parish, Louisiana, was the only place in America where the people could not figure out that “limiting” a politician’s government “service” to 20 years was, in fact, an absence of the core intention and purpose of term limits. (Personally, I’m trying to figure out what the losing one-third was thinking!)
The second ballot proposition loss – by 59 votes – ended a long-in-place property tax millage for maintenance of some roads and facilities. Those 1.74-mills, in context, are less than 1% of Caddoans’ total property tax – the highest in Louisiana, we should note – and under 5% of the Commission’s near-38.00-mill total. Lest someone think this means the Commission is suddenly being “starved” of 5-cents-on-the-dollar of its money mountain, such is not the case given its whopping reserves, reserves mainly attributable to its recent Haynesville Shale windfall.
Now, about those reserves …
I decided to have a gander at the Commission’s online budget documents to get the skinny on the reported-by-some $88,000,000 operating reserve, an amount by percentage that in today’s American governance – local, state and federal – is unheard of.
Given that these budget documents have hundreds of pages – 272 pages for the Commission’s current year report – more than one application of budget figures to certain defining labels is possible. A preferred and particularly direct comparison, I believe, is using a like document from past and current budgets, such as the Commission’s “Summary of 2008 Budget Governmental Funds” to the like budget documents for 2013 (scroll to report Page C-1, or document page 109). In the 2008 budget year, the “Fund Balance at End of Year” was $77,295,846, as compared to the identically labeled amount in the current, 2013, year of $165,726,926. The difference is $88,431,080.
The reader may notice that this fund balance is nearly equal to the Commission’s “Total Expenditures” in 2013 of $94,479,060. This is, therefore and effectively, a reserve fund which is 94% of the Commission’s annual budget. The City of Shreveport’s budget shows total “operating funds” in 2013 of nearly a half-billion dollars – $455,223,326 – with $4,422,500 as a planned operating reserve. The City’s reserve has actually dropped, various City Council sources report, to closer to $1,000,000, but even at the planned $4,422,500, its reserve was knowingly set to be less than 1% of its planned-for spending.
When Commission tempers settle …
Here are a few thoughts and ideas for the consideration of Commission members.
(1) Due to your relative saving of the Haynesville Shale windfall, Caddo Parish has a “AAA” bond rating. It does not hurt, of course, that Caddo Parish taxpayers have always supported the general direction you have recently taken, as proven by our 99% likelihood to renew property taxes you put before us. Because some of us believe the matter of that windfall should be purposely discussed in an understandable way does not justify the intention of some Commissioners and staff to deliberately and unnecessarily “get even” with the community.
(2) A Shreveport property owner pays those city property taxes, and the Commission’s property taxes, and our school board’s property taxes. The resulting property tax bill is the highest in Louisiana, and is in some cases much, much higher than in other cities. (Yes, our school board is particularly egregious in this context.)
(3) The size of your reserve means one thing in this context: property-tax payers are paying for future residents, many of whom are unlikely to own property, a point we believe should long ago have been openly acknowledged. Perhaps a refund of some of our Haynesville Shale blessing is in order.
(4) The six-year period I used to substantiate your 94% reserve – 2008 through 2013 – is pretty much the period of America’s Great Recession. While the Commission and most other government entities here did not suffer it, many taxpayers did. According to your own budget document, included among the top 10 employers in Caddo Parish are 6 government entities, along with 2 not-for-profit hospital companies and 2 gambling companies. Christus-Schumpert is expected to drop from that list next year, meaning 7-of-10 of our top employers will be gatherers and disbursers of our own money, not producers of new money. Such is no healthy or sustainable foundation for any economy.
(5) In the future, you might consider separating property tax renewals from such propositions as term “limits” which effectively keep a Commissioner in office for 20 years. (Yes, I know the never-to-be-spoken-in-public official reasoning behind this proposal.) It is only logical to assume that this proposition negatively impacted the bond proposition. We’ll take ’em where we can get ’em.
(6) Credible sources have shared with me that some of the Commission’s intended retribution traces to certain top officials we pay, but who live and pay their taxes in Bossier. The honorable response from our elected Commissioners would be to immediately reverse any policies which allow employees to live other than in Caddo Parish. No “grandfathering” should be allowed, either.
I respectfully suggest that the Commission redefine this supposed “loss” as a natural response from a bedraggled and often stiffed taxpaying Caddo public. In other words, the “will of the people” at this point in time. We well remember Shreveport and Caddo Parish officials far, far more aware of who pays and otherwise supports them. With no population growth for nearly 35 years – and relatively high taxation is in no small part the cause – there are fewer and fewer of us to pay this always growing tab. Too, too many of our elected officials forgot or never knew a couple of obvious points in the “stewards of the public trust” thing …
… money which runs government belongs to the public, not to public officials, and
… as the past 35 years here have dramatically proven, people vote with their hands and their feet.
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the sharing – unedited only, please – of his work is requested and appreciated.