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Monday, May 8, 2017

Caddo Commision Has Lost Favor

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Parish body comes under increasing scrutiny

Once upon a time, the Caddo Parish Commission was known as "the zoo" because of its conduct at meetings and the bickering among its members. But as years passed and new members were elected, its image changed. The Commission became the shining star among local government entities. It had a Triple A bond rating, the only one in the state, and was awash in money from the Haynesville Shale.

Then all hell broke loose.

Government watcher and political analyst Elliot Stonecipher started digging into the Commission’s participation in the Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System (CPERS). That was unconstitutional for part-time public officials, according to a report from the Legislative Auditor. That issue has wound up in the courts, but it opened the door for wider scrutiny of other Commission activities. The Commission in February 2016 voted to take themselves out of CPERS.

Another target for government watchers was travel expenses. The Commission was allowing each member to spend up to $15,000 a year on travel. That was excessive in the minds of most people. That amount has been trimmed back to $8,000 a year. The current Commission has also dealt with the life and health insurance issue. To its credit, it has voted to end its subsidized health insurance.

Then there were the excessive salaries received by the commissioners. Each time they approved a cost-of-living raise for parish employees, they included themselves without input from the voters. The COLA increases have resulted in the commissioners being the highest-paid part-time governmental employees in the state, raking in $22,800 a year. The current Commission has voted to end the COLA increases.

The current Commission, which has five new members, has taken many actions to ensure fiscal responsibility and correct past abuses. But in the minds of voters, who have long memories, the Commission still has a perception and credibility problem, which is a hangover from previous years, such as an attempt in 2013 to expand term limits from three to five terms. It was defeated with 66 percent voting against the amendment to the Parish Charter. At the same time, voters turned down a $23 million bond issue proposed by the Commission.

The recent thumbs down by voters on four parish-wide property tax renewals was a bit surprising. The renewals were endorsed by the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, the Committee of 100 and the Northwest Louisiana Economic Partnership. A local political action committee (PAC) was formed to promote passage through media buys and robo phone calls. Opposition came in the form of some social media persons and bloggers. The stake to the heart was probably the opposition from the Caddo Republican Party.

To be sure, there were other contributing factors to the rejection of the propositions. Voters are weary of special elections on obscure election dates that ensure low turnout. The revelation that the Commission has $120 million in reserves didn’t help. Nor did the memories of the Elio deal, the handling of the GM Plant and the problems at the animal shelter.

The voter turnout, as expected, was dismal. Only 8.2 percent of Caddo’s 164,118 registered voters went to the polls on Saturday, April 29.

Proposition No. 1 would have brought in $1.48 million per year to fund public facilities. It failed by 16 votes. Proposition No 2 would have brought in $1.55 million to fund public health facilities. It failed by 117 votes. Proposition No. 3 would have brought in $3.5 million to fund the juvenile court system. It failed with 51 percent voting against. And Proposition No. 4 would have brought in $4.84 million to fund operation of the parish courthouse. It lost with 53 percent voting against.

There is no immediate panic, of course, because none of the property tax renewals expires this year. One expires in 2018, one in 2020 and two in 2022. So there is time for the Commission to come back to the voters. When and on what election date will be the big question.

Commissioner Steven Jackson, president of the Commission, had this to say: "There are no immediate steps to take with regards to our budget. As has been pointed out in several reports, these were early propositions the Commissioner placed on the ballot at the request of the parish administration. However, I think it’s probably wise for the parish to at least start forecasting budget scenarios that accept the realities of the April 29 elections in the event the outcome is the same. It’s not a concession, but wise budgeting planning in order to make informed budget decisions."

The current members of the Commission, especially the five new members, are working hard to change the perception of the governmental entity and to restore credibility to its governing practices. It may have been wise, therefore, to wait and bring these propositions up for a vote at a later time on an active election day when the turnout of voters would be higher. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.

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