Congratulations, Lafayette, your home equity is growing.
Assessor Conrad Comeaux’s office begins this week sending the letters to residents across Lafayette Parish informing them that their property values are up since the last assessment four years ago — nearly 5.5 percent in both the city of Lafayette and the unincorporated parts of the parish. This is a good thing, no? It means the house I own is worth more than it was four years ago and, should I decide to sell it, I can expect to get more for it. My investment is paying off.
Of course, what it also means, and this is ultimately the purpose of the letters from the assessor’s office, is that my property tax bill is going to go up commensurately with the rise in my home’s value. My taxes are going up. I’m not too bothered by this, not because I want to pay more in taxes. But I realize that in order for my local school board and government — and all the satellite functions like libraries and recreation centers, fire and police protection, paved roads and adequate drainage, having a jail to hold the bad guys — can continue to provide services at the level I’ve come to expect.
It’s no secret that times are tough for local governments everywhere, although it can’t be stressed enough that Lafayette has weathered the Great Recession better than most. But as the cost of operating government rises — fuel costs alone are an acute pressure on government and business alike — revenue must either keep pace or services must be cut. City-Parish President Joey Durel’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which the council is currently picking through and will finalize next month, contains cuts to many, many LCG departments.
Durel’s budget also factored in a very important thing: that the City-Parish Council would see fit to keep property tax rates the same as they were last year. This being a reassessment year and the Durel administration no doubt having a general sense that property values and their attendant tax revenues would be up, the budget reflects this increased revenue and relies on it to stay in the black.
But here’s the rub: It was in no way a slam dunk the council would go along. State law requires local governments to ease back on property tax rates when property values rise so the tax revenue doesn’t exceed the prior year’s revenue — unless a super majority on a city council votes to keep the rates the same, thereby ensuring that tax revenue keeps pace with inflation. Our CPC is a nine-member council; six votes were needed to ensure that pace-keeping revenue stream. And that’s exactly what Durel got Tuesday night. Six council members — Don Bertrand, Kenneth Boudreaux, Jay Castille, Kevin Naquin, Keith Patin and Brandon Shelvin — voted with common sense and prevailed. The three who voted against the ordinance keeping tax levels the same — Jared Bellard, Andy Naquin and William Theriot — have established themselves as champions of short-sightedness.
It’s important to emphasize that a yes vote Tuesday night was to keep tax levels at last year’s rate, not to increase the tax rate. Indeed, the result of the vote is that taxes will rise, but Lafayette will remain the lowest taxed major parish in the state of Louisiana even after these increases go into effect. I suppose we could start really combing through the budget and slashing everything that isn’t roads, bridges and public safety. Obviously non-governmental arts/culture and social service organizations would be the first to go, although line-iteming them out would do virtually nothing to address the issue. We could begin a slow drift toward being like Tensas or Beauregard parishes. Thanks, but I’d rather not.
This is a nonpartisan issue, and last night’s vote reflected it: four Democrats and two Republicans voted yes; the three most far-right Republicans voted no. We can clearly see where the stress fracture on the CPC is located, and it’s not between the donkeys and the elephants, it’s between common sense and pandering.