Parish dealing with financial challenges

Published 12:01 pm Friday, November 9, 2012

By Richard Meek

The Daily News

A looming financial crunch that must be resolved by the end of the year has Washington Parish officials scrambling to find a solution.

Finance Director Donna Alonzo said the general fund, which basically serves as the parish’s daily checkbook, is projected to have a $250,000 shortfall as of Dec. 31. State law prohibits any parish from finishing the year with a deficit in the general fund, forcing parish officials to explore all possibilities.

“We’re looking in all different directions to see where we can get the funding to make sure we balance,” Parish President Richard Thomas said. “It seems like a whole lot, then again it’s not a lot to work with.”

However, Thomas was emphatic when he said he did not anticipate any type of employee furloughs or layoffs.

“Anything is possible but I don’t think so,” Thomas said. “I’m real optimistic that we can get something done to balance the budget this year. It’s a pretty rough situation.”

Thomas said the parish does some have some reserves through Certificates of Deposits and in other areas, but added he does not want to “drain these out. We’ll definitely figure something out.”

Alonzo said the parish has overcome significant cash crunches in the past few weeks and some things may have to be put on hold to money comes in.

“There will come a point,” she said about that possibility. “It’s tight right now.”

Alonzo said the parish pays the bills of the various subagencies, including the offices of Clerk of Court and Assessor, and reimburses the sheriff’s office for its expenses, such as medical, and feeding the prisoners.

Because most of her time has been devoted to resolving the current financial challenges Alonzo said she has not been able to complete substantial work on the 2013 budget but Thomas promises it will be just as tight, if not even a bit slimmer. He said layoffs in his office are possible but quickly added he “doesn’t have many to cut because I’ve cut back to much. Subagencies are what is eating (the budget). Louisiana says we must pay mandated expenses.”

Thomas and Alonzo plan to meet with each agency individually once the current crisis is resolved but the parish president’s visit will be accompanied with words of caution.

“The subagencies must understand it’s going to be a lot tougher until (a proposed sales tax increase) passes,” he said. “It will be a tough three to four months for us and our subagencies. I hope they can bear with us until something does happen.

“Something has to happen for this whole situation to work out. (The agencies) are all on board with whatever we can do.”

Thomas said it’s likely the council will put a .33-cent sales tax increase before voters in a special April election. A final version of the proposed tax must be presented to the state bond commission by Nov. 19 for approval to be placed on the April ballot.

Council members were originally hoping to have the tax proposal on the ballot in December but a series of errors and miscommunications by the parish’s financial advisor created the delay. If voters had approved the tax in December the parish would likely have begun to realize revenue in April.

Even if approved in April, officials have said revenue likely would not hit parish coffers until likely August.

“We want to make sure the wording is right to be presented (to the bond commission),” Thomas said. “I’m working hard so that we don’t have anything like what happened before.”

The final version of the sales tax proposal is expected to be voted on when the council meets Monday at 6 p.m. at the courthouse.