Don’t believe what you read from Bossier City politicians running for reelection, at least their claims of fiscal “conservatism.”
With substantial multiple challenges for the first time in two decades, having to run opposed, all Republicans, are Mayor Lo Walker, at-large Councilors Tim Larkin and David Montgomery, and District 1 Councilor Scott Irwin. As such, the direct mail has been flying through the post promoting their candidacies with assertions about their records.
Excepting Larkin, whose pieces trumpet keeping Bossier City “NUMBER ONE!”, these are replete with references to the deep Christianity of the sender and how he has governed in a fiscally “conservative” manner. While their challengers occasionally use the same language in their fliers, and it’s difficult to look into people’s hearts to assess their religiosity, insofar as fiscal governance has transpired over the past 20 years, the incumbents have records easily assessed – and found wanting relative to their claims.
At best, the likes of Walker, Larkin, Montgomery, and Irwin are faux fiscal conservatives who more accurately fit the bill as big spenders, particularly where future generations are concerned. An overview of the city budget over the years as well as a comparative perspective with other Louisiana large municipalities demonstrates this. (Note: operating revenues and expenses listed below exclude business activities, mostly water and sewerage.)
In 2000, the year before Larkin and Montgomery joined the Council, two years before Irwin won a special election to get there, and five years before Walker became mayor – although as the city’s chief administrative officer, he had a prominent hand in fiscal policy – Bossier City was in some short-term trouble. Expenditures exceeded revenues by over $20 million or a quarter of revenues, requiring the city to dip into various reserves. Not that it had a lot of leeway with debt of over $77 million and fund balances of not quite $62 million. The authorized property tax millage then was 26.38 mills. (Note: henceforth are listed the summed actual millages levied, which may differ from the maximum authorized.)
Disputes over the building of today’s Brookshire Grocery Arena and where sent a few councilors to early retirement in 2001, which led to Larkin, Montgomery, and eventually Irwin assuming seats. By 2005 when they would run for reelection, and when Walker would successfully run to succeed former Democrat Mayor George Dement, things had improved. Expenditures outpaced revenues by only a couple of million dollars, and while debt rose to just over $100 million, fund balances did also. Better still, the property tax millage rate had declined to 22.71.
Then things started to come apart. By 2010, spending had risen to $117 million, representing a near $500 per capita or 35 percent increase in just five years, although revenues mostly kept pace. Most disturbingly, debt skyrocketed, more than tripling to $358 million or greater than twice the total funds balance. Property tax rates declined further to 21.69.
The pace leveled only somewhat by 2015. Debt continued its rapid increase, up 20 percent more to $431 million, or almost two-and-a-half times reserves. This meant that each citizen owed almost $6,400 a head, or nearly five times the amount in 2000. At least spending came down somewhat to $105 million but revenues fell faster to create a $10 million deficit. And the property tax rate rose to 22.75.
The last year of data is 2019. New debt slowed to a ten percent increase, putting the city at owing close to a half-billion dollars, about twice existing reserves and nearly five times annual revenue. That increased but so did spending, just shy of 2010 levels, leaving a $9 million deficit. Citizen per capita debt now is almost $7,000, and per capita spending is about at 2000 levels. Property taxes increased still more to 23.36 (although they will decrease to 22.58 for 2021. Sales taxes have remained at 2.5 percent since before 2000.)
In sum, from 2005 with all of these incumbents in office, while the rate of inflation has gone up 35 percent, city revenues have increased only 26 percent and spending has matched the rate of inflation. In per capita terms, spending has risen just 12 percent, although revenues obviously rose even less, just five percent – the mark of a stagnant city. But most distressingly, while reserves have more than doubled, debt has nearly quintupled, or increasing 14 times fast than inflation, so that in 2019 the city paid to service debt, exclusive of business activities (which are supposed to fund themselves, including debt, through user fees) over $21 million in principal and interest or a fifth of its entire revenues – money that could have gone to other items and ushered in lower taxes.
And while the city basically may have held the line on property taxes (using the 2021 figure), on this account Bossier City relative to its peer cities is overtaxed. Of the ten large cities in Louisiana that comprise its metropolitan areas, Bossier City has the fifth-highest property tax rate, and of its two peer cities of roughly the same population as it, Lake Charles assesses only 15.05 and Kenner just 15.75 mills.
Further comparison with these other two cities is instructive. In 2019-20, Kenner’s governmental activities were financed by $82 million in revenue with expenditures just below that. It only paid about $6.4 million in debt costs because it had just $174 million in debt across all activities. For Lake Charles (like Bossier City in that it has multiple casinos), which has as an Oct.-Sep. fiscal year, in FY 2019 it collected for government activities $132 million but spent $19 million fewer, paying just $10 million to service $46 million owed.
The reason why Bossier City has gone so deeply into debt as well as raised property taxes and seen spending rise faster than revenues since Walker, Larkin, Montgomery, and Irwin have come on board is in part profligate spending on venture capital items. They inherited the money-losing arena and added other unneeded things such as a parking garage for a property manager that went into receivership and a high-tech office building that took years to attract jobs and then just a fraction of what they promised.
These few items alone have now cost over $100 million. All of these should have been private-sector driven without any government involvement, but Bossier City’s approach mimicked the New Deal with its emphasis on these and huge public works projects – and small ones as well, such as the city’s yearly slush funding of items in districts and city-wide to give elected officials baubles to show off to the public around elections.
In a sense, this has validated Larkin’s claim; Bossier City is NUMBER ONE – in per capita debt and by far among Louisiana’s larger cities, foisted upon councilors’ children, grandchildren, and in 87-year-old Walker’s case, great-grandchildren. They’ll pay for decades to allow Walker, Larkin, Montgomery, and Irwin to use the likes of sidewalks to nowhere as reelection props.
Overspending, overtaxed, and overleveraged is the legacy of essentially two decades of Walker, Larkin, Montgomery, and Irwin. Their actions demonstrate they’re not fiscal conservatives, but con men trying to sell themselves to voters as something they are not.