One would think that budgeting would be an exact science, but some of it is about as scientific as picking the middle horse in a trifecta at the nearest horse racing track.
Much of what goes into a budget document is solid accounting, the result of crunching numbers that were generated in the previous year. They are real numbers, based in fact. There are receipts, contracts and check ledgers to back them all up.
On the other side of that, however, are the budgetary projections. They begin where the previous year’s solid bedrock of accounting ends, subject to the whims of, say, a global pandemic. Or an unforeseen drop in offshore oil activity. Or a record-breaking hurricane season.
In the last six years, Iberia Parish has seen all of those things occur. In that time, There have been some fairly drastic measures undertaken to make up for the shortfalls in revenues that had previously been taken for granted.
Expenses for maintenance have been deferred. Most years, raises for the bulk of the parish’s employees have been put on hold. Purchases of new equipment have been cancelled. Positions have been eliminated, mostly through attrition but some through layoffs.
There are some other proposals that have been planned as well, but for one reason or another they have not moved forward yet.
Downsizing the footprint
One is to reduce the government’s real estate holdings. In 2018, the Iberia Parish Council approved the creation of a master list of properties. The goal of the list would be for the council and administration to identify some properties for liquidation. That would reduce the government’s costs for maintenance and to put what could be viable commercial property back into the private sector, where it would generate tax revenue.
That list was created in 2020 and contains 115 properties that the parish either owns or maintains for other political entities. Although a committee was set up last year to move forward on the liquidation of some properties, that committee never met.
Another proposal that was made in 2016 was to move the parish to a merit-based system of pay raises, complete with personnel evaluations and a rating system to make the awarding of raises more equitable.
In 2017, when that system was supposed to go into effect, it was pushed off because it was not ready yet. Although the parish has in some years cancelled raises entirely, the system to tie those raises to job performance when they become available is still not in place.
There are two sides to the issue of raising taxes in the council. On one side, some council members have stated that the parish has cut back too much on its millages, making it impossible to continue operating without going to the voters for either increases in existing millages or new taxes that could be directed for specific uses, like road maintenance.
On the other side are council members who think the administration has still not cut all of the fat from the existing government. District 5 Councilman — and newly elected council chairman — Warren Gachassin has insisted on several occasions that the administration has still not made the personnel and expense cuts that could ease the tax burden on businesses and individuals.
The reality is somewhere in between. The parish has taken a massive hit in revenue from the drop in its royalty income due to the economic slowdown in the energy sector. But so far its ad valorem taxes and sales tax figures, with the exception of the hotel/motel tax, have been relatively stable through the latest coronavirus-induced slowdown.
But the millages that the parish has that it can adjust are already running wide open. In order to generate any increase in revenue to fund the government, the existing millages would have to be put to a vote to be increased.
And even if the voters increased the existing millages, there is still no dedicated revenue for road maintenance, meaning that it would take a resurgence in oil or mining revenue to make that fund solvent again.
What happens next?
In 2019, when the parish council empaneled its ad hoc committee to evaluate its millages, the final word was that the current ad valorem millages were inadequate. Even then, the committee saw that the expense of running the government was going to erode existing fund balances each year until, after about five years, the budget would not be capable of being balanced without new taxes.
The 2021 budget is emblematic of that trend. Many of the accounts that have had positive balances forwarded each year are seeing decreases. Those decreases will continue until the tax base increases, meaning that the trend of population and industry exodus from the parish will have to reverse itself.
In the meantime, the budget is balanced, for now. But how long that balance can be maintained is hard to envision.