Avoyelles Police Jury president explains $1.3 million surplus
In keeping with the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, Avoyelles Police Jury members have been getting calls and hearing complaints about its $1.3 million surplus in this year’s budget. Rather than being praised for living within its means and being fiscally responsible, the Police Jury has been criticized for not using some or all of that “extra money” to address pressing needs in the parish -- bad roads, poor drainage, dangerous bridges, etc.
The initial news report on the budget surplus noted that it includes several separate budget accounts and that the money in most of those accounts cannot be spent for anything not included in that part of the budget.
“Immediately following the report there was an outcry as to ‘Why my road was not fixed,’” Police Jury President Charles Jones said.
He said he wishes it was as simple as taking the $1.3 million and using it to address the parish’s roads, bridges and drainage. However, he added, it isn’t very simple at all.
Jones said he wanted an opportunity to explain to the public what the surplus is and what it isn’t.
“The Police Jury has had a budget surplus every budget cycle for a number of years,” Jones said. “Some years the surplus is not as much as it is in other years. At the end of the budget year, the surplus amount becomes part of the parish’s Reserve Fund.
‘NOT A BAD THING'
“A year-to-year budget surplus is not a bad thing,” Jones continued. “On the other hand, a year-to-year budget deficit will eventually lead to insolvency.”
Jones said dealing with a budget is not just an annual event. It is a day-to-day chore that requires attention to detail and planning. Revenue comes from sales tax, permit fees, state and federal sources and property taxes. The Police Jury has to decide how to spend that revenue to best achieve its mission of serving the public.
“The Police Jury needs to repave at least 80 percent of the parish roads,” Jones said. “That is clearly impossible. The biggest portion of the parish budget is spent on road and bridge maintenance, solid waste and statutory obligations, such as maintaining the courthouse.
“Our parish maintenance effort is about half of what we really need to get done, considering our limited resources,” he continued.
He said the parish has been unsuccessful in most of its attempts to pass a tax for parish roads.
Managing the budget “is a balancing act,” Jones said. “Cutting back on expenditures and being able to react to unscheduled and emergency needs is difficult, to say the least.”
10 SEPARATE ACCOUNTS
The 2016 budget surplus is the result of managing 10 separate budget accounts, he noted.
“The amount of surplus money reported relates in various amounts of those accounts,” Jones said. “Over half of these accounts are restricted, meaning their funds can only be used within the authorization of those specific accounts.”
For example, the Library Fund surplus cannot be used for bridge and road repairs. The HUD Fund, which is subsidized by the federal government, can only be used to support that program. The Health Unit Fund revenues cannot be spent outside of that program. The Tourism Fund revenues also cannot be used for other purposes.
The parishwide 1-cent sales tax is divided with 75 percent used to fund the Solid Waste program and 25 percent set aside for parish roads.
The General Fund revenues can be used for any purpose because its money is not dedicated to a specific purpose by statute, tax proposition or by the funding source. It is also the only one of the major budget accounts to end the budget year in the red for the past few years, forcing it to dip into its prior years’ accumulated reserve rather than add to it.
Jones said the Legislative Auditor recommends a parish have a reserve fund that would allow it to operate for 120 days.
“The parish continues to work toward that objective, but not all accounts are at that level,” Jones said. “Also, the reserve becomes very important when the parish has unexpected expenses or the parish ends up with a deficit year instead of a surplus year.”
Jones said the parish “has to bear the cost of damages from a serious weather event” and then hope to be reimbursed for 75 percent of those costs if the damage qualifies for federal assistance. That reimbursement can take over a year to receive.
“The parish is still awaiting reimbursement for damages that occurred in September of 2016,” Jones said.
Some surplus funds can be “rolled into” the next year’s budget to pay for such things as a major equipment purchase.
‘THE BEST WE CAN'
“I can assure the public that we are doing the best we can with the resources we have been allowed,” Jones said.
He said the jury improved the parish management structure and purchased a few pieces of heavy equipment over the past few years.
“We have worked very hard to keep our bridges opened and safe,” Jones continued. “Our garbage collections have improved with our new contract, which allowed the contractor to put some new equipment on line.”
The state has allocated almost $1 million in Capital Outlay funds for road improvements in the parish. The parish has pending applications with FEMA for federal funds for a number of projects designed to improve drainage and reduce flood damages in the future. The parish has eight timber bridges approved to be replaced with concrete structures through a state bridge replacement program. Those projects have a combined cost of $2 million.
Concerning questions about parish road maintenance projects, Jones noted that the parish “operates off of a work order system. There has to be a work order to support a specific need or project.”
The parish crews perform routine maintenance on roads and bridges, but Jones said anyone seeing a specific need or a hazardous situation should call the maintenance office so a work request can be documented.
Jones said the public is invited to attend the jury’s regular monthly meeting at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month and the committee meeting at 4 p.m. on the Thursday before that meeting.
He said all of the jury’s records, including all information regarding the budget, are open to the public and can be viewed at the Police Jury office on the 2nd Floor of the courthouse during business hours.
“If necessary, a Finance Committee member and the staff will be available to give details and an explanation of the budget and the process,” Jones added.