Mandatory budget cuts will have varying effects on Washington Parish agencies as directors use creative methods to do more with less.
Finance Director Donna Alonzo and President Richard Thomas recently announced 16-percent, across-the-board cuts for agencies receiving funding from parish government. Officials said the cutbacks were necessary to help balance what is a tight 2013 budget.
By state law, parish governments are mandated to supplement several agencies, most notably the clerk of court, sheriff’s office, registrar of voters, district attorney’s office and the judicial branch.
“It affects us big time the way they are cutting everything,” said Clerk of Court Johnny D. Crain Jr., noting the office also endured a severe slash in its budget in 2009 that ultimately forced layoffs, although his dad, longtime clerk Johnny D. Crain, was in the office at the time.
The parish does not pay for salaries in his office.
“It surprised me a little bit what is being paid and what is not,” he said. “Right now we’re looking at a bunch of things. I don’t know which route I’m going to go.”
Crain said his office had already been operating with a skeleton staff and planned no layoffs. When asked about the potential for furloughs, he said, “We’re looking at everything right now.”
Crain said employees will notice a significant change in their health insurance plans, with annual deductibles rising from $500 to $2,000.
“It’s something we have to do,” he said. “I know what parish government is going through and we’re just trying to help them out. We just have to work smart and efficient with what we have to work with.”
Cutting back on the hours of operation is not an option, Crain said, because the state mandates the office remain open until 4:30 p.m. daily.
“If (the parish government) ordered to shut down, we would have to get that approved by the lawyers, approved by the judges, by the state to do that,” Crain said. “We’re kind of told when we have to be open.”
Across the hall at the parish courthouse, Assessor Jimbo Stevenson said the impact would be “very little” on his office since the overwhelming majority of his nearly $900,000 budget is funded by ad valorem taxes and revenue sharing from the sales tax. The assessor’s annual subsidy has traditionally hovered in the $7,000 range.
“All (the parish office) provides us with is office to operate in and pays electricity for it,” he said. “If they take 16 percent it won’t be damaging.”
Washington Parish Sheriff Randy Seal’s budget is being trimmed in areas such as building maintenance, building maintenance supplies and medical expenses for prisoners. Some of those are being cut 100 percent, including the medical expenses, but the presence of medical personnel at the jail, which is being provided with the assistance of LSU Bogalusa Medical Center, should nullify much of that expense.
Seal said he is working to make the cuts as seamless as possible for his office.
“Public safety will not compromised,” said Seal, who took office in July after a 16-year stint as parish assessor. “We have been aggressive in fighting crime in Washington Parish. We will continue to be aggressive and do not plan to diminish our efforts in any form or fashion.”
Seal added construction of a new jail is critical for the parish and added the existing structure would not pass constitutional scrutiny by the federal courts.
“We don’t even have space to isolate inmates whose behavior makes them a threat to themselves and to others,” the sheriff said. “The existing jail is too small for our needs and the infrastructure is crumbling.”
He said he has already begun meeting with architects and planners regarding space requirements for a potential new facility, but was quick to add he has no plans to ask for a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail.
“It is inevitable that the jail will have to be replaced,” Seal said,
New Registrar of Voters Randy Strickland said the $10,000 hit to his budget is significant but noted that the state pays nearly 90 percent of the salaries for his staff so layoffs will not be an issue. However, this year he already started began slashing expenses in anticipation of the cuts.
For example, he said his office has saved postage the past 30 days by holding non-timely mailings until after Jan. 1. But he did emphasize all time sensitive documents were mailed.
Strickland also does not see trimming office hours unless the parish ultimately has to close the courthouse to make ends meet.
“That could have an effect on us,” he said.
District attorney Walter Reed’s office is facing $147,850 in cuts, down more than 29 percent from 2012 expenditures of $493,050. Those figures are somewhat misleading, however, as the parish has streamlined the way it reports the DA’s office expenses.
In past years, Reed’s budget was divided by actual budget and by an annual amount over and above the budget that he had traditionally supplemented for a number of years. However, at one point Reed cut off the supplement and now pays only a portion of the added expenses.
The parish has cut off all funding for such items as rentals and leases, dues and subscriptions, postage, office supplies, maintenance of vehicles, gas, court expenses and building maintenance.
Reed’s office did not return an email seeking comment.
All agencies have the right to protest the cuts and if the issues are not resolved to their satisfaction could ultimately take the parish to court. However, none of those contacted said they planned any protests or court action.