LAFAYETTE – Keith Stutes, the district attorney for Louisiana’s fifth district since 2015, said he hopes his lawsuit against the Lafayette Consolidated Government (LCG) to fully fund his office will start a conversation that leads to a resolution.
“I’ve been asking and asking to discuss it with the parish (officials),” Stutes recently told the Louisiana Record. “I’m trying to evoke a conversation with this lawsuit.”
The issue at hand is the LCG’s plan to cut funding for Stutes’ office, whose jurisdiction is LaFayette and two other parishes that already have signed cooperative funding agreements with the district attorney.
The cuts included a reduction of $575,000 in the criminal court fund and $106,000 in the parish general fund.
Stutes said the cuts were announced after he had informed officials upon taking office last year that his office would no longer be reimbursing LCG for some of the cost of assistant prosecutors’ salaries, claiming the practice was illegal.
He said the budget cuts proposed by the LCG are unreasonable and would cause a reduction of up to 20 employees in the DA’s 60-plus-member office.
“They’re laying off employees who aren’t employees of the parish,” he said.
Stutes said LCG officials have claimed the cuts are because of projected diminishing tax receipts, but he said that’s not an adequate defense against a state law that clearly says the parishes must provide enough money to adequately fund his office.
But therein lies the question – what is adequate funding and who gets to decide?
Stutes filed suit against LCG on May 17 to find out.
“The law doesn’t outline specifics in that area, but it’s non-discretionary,” he said. “The word ‘reasonable’ has been infused in this equation, but state law mandates that parish government authorities to providing funding to the DA.”
He said it’s common for tax receipts to rise and fall each year, but there are core functions of government that must continue, regardless. He said the legal system is one of those functions.
“It’s not unique to our area,” he said. “It has been a weakness (in the state’s funding system) until now.”
On May 23, the judges in all three parishes -- Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion -- recused themselves from the case, citing potential conflicts of interest.
Stutes said he expects an outside judge to the take the case and answer his request to have the LCG budget-cutting ordinance stayed until the legal questions are answered. He said he has yet to be notified how soon that might happen.
In the meantime, he said, he’d like to be able to discuss the matters with LCG officials to work together on a compromise. So far, he said he hasn’t heard much from them.
“I think the law envisions a time for negotiation when two sides disagree like this, and I’ll do whatever I can to negotiate a reasonable resolution," he said.