Sheriff calls cuts a ‘no-win’ situation

Joey Boudreaux
December 5, 2018
Sheila Naquin
December 6, 2018
Joey Boudreaux
December 5, 2018
Sheila Naquin
December 6, 2018

Voter rejection last month of a half-cent sales tax, heavily promoted as a means of hiring school resource officers, providing officer raises and stemming fiscal shortfalls has thrown Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter into a budget-cutting tailspin.

Larpenter now faces sharp criticisms, because the layoffs bump up against Christmas. His public posture, to some, appears as that of a Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of responsibility and laying blame on the crowd, voters who turned down the tax. The plan now in place to cope with Larpenter’s growing deficit creates severe repercussions for officers, some government agencies and the public at large:

•Layoff notices have been sent to 39 deputies, among them 20 corrections officers, two majors, two captains, three lieutenants and a sergeant.

•About half of the Terrebonne jail’s operations are being shut down, since the layoffs will place the facility afoul of best-practices inmate to officer ratios.

•The Terrebonne Council on Aging will likely have to fund feeding of elders currently done at minimal cost by the sheriff.

•Moving inmates to distant parishes will result in costs to the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government that could reach $2 million or more.

•Water Patrol units will be cut from five to either two or three, with patrol of camps, some in remote areas, suspended, and operations restricted to emergencies.

•Cuts in the numbers and strategic placements of officers during Houma’s Carnival parades are forecast, in part because of layoffs now in place.

•A popular inmate work program that cleaned and painted schools and other buildings will likely end, as the cost of housing those inmates above the Terrebonne courthouse will be eliminated.

Larpenter said patrol services will not be affected, as officers from other units facing cuts, like Water Patrol, will take to the roads. Thus far, he has also not cut back on his office’s drug enforcement officers. But if costs increase and revenues decrease, he said, all options are on the table.

Terrebonne Parish currently pays the local Sheriff’s Office $3.50 per day for holding prisoners in its jail, which the parish government owns, and the sheriff operates.

Jackson Parish, officials said, expect to be charging Terrebonne $21.40 per day they are held, and expenses will accrue for transportation costs when those prisoners must make court appearances. Jackson Parish is more than 260 miles away from Houma.

Talks are underway that could result in the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government saving deputy jobs at a cost to its own budget, to avoid the higher cost of bills from outlying parishes. But as of now there are no guarantees.

“We are trying to work it out,” said Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove. “I understand he does have a financial situation because of the lack of taxes. In Jerry’s defense, his money is wrapped up in personnel. I had to cut $10 million a year three years ago but I have 14 departments, I can chip a little out of each one. With Jerry, it is pure, deep personnel costs. I hate to see him have to cut any deputies, but it is a bad tax collection time. But taxes have been coming up. Jerry is working with me and we will work it out. At the end of the day we will find a way to do what is best for Terrebonne Parish.”


Reviews of Sheriff’s Office financial records provide strong indications that such solutions have been available in recent years, but not actively sought by Larpenter.

“We tried to go as long as we can, and we can’t go no more,” Larpenter said in an interview last week. “We tried to stretch it as long as we can. If the public doesn’t like it, blame it on the people that voted against the tax. We had a golden opportunity to stabilize this office for the next 30 years.”

He says he accepts responsibility and that critics who maintain otherwise are not being truthful.

“I have friends who are leaving because of these cuts,” Larpenter said. “I don’t want to see any of them go. The buck stops right here with me, partner, and there may have to be some more cuts.”

The timing of layoffs, occurring in the midst of the holiday season, is not being done out of inconsideration, he maintains.

“I have to make cuts before the new year starts, when people accrue vacation time and other benefits,” Larpenter said. “I have to start cutting immediately because if not, I will be incurring a lot more cost. The sooner I cut, the less I am going to owe next year. It has to start to cut into that $5.5 million deficit.”

Sheriff’s Office officials close to Larpenter, who have been working with him on the budget issues, confided in interviews that the personnel cuts have affected the sheriff deeply and personally. While Larpenter mourns his need to make cuts, critics say he could have made them some time ago, before he proposed the half-cent tax as a Hail Mary solution. The proposal, in retrospect, may have cost Larpenter credibility he has earned with residents over his 24 years as their sheriff.

The most qualified and credible critics of Larpenter’s management of the Sheriff’s Office have shared their thoughts in interviews but did not wish to be quoted name. Some had political or business-based reasons for refusing. Others have relatives still employed by the Sheriff’s Office. Other critics include potential candidates for his job.


Among those who do stand by their positions publicly is Wallace Ellender III, chairman of the Terrebonne Parish Republican Executive Committee. He and seven other party committee members voted on Oct. 22 to not support the proposed tax.

“We believe that a higher sales tax in Terrebonne is neither consumer nor business friendly, and will ultimately hurt an already ailing economy,” Wallace Ellender said. “Although we fully support the safety of our school children, we believe another way must be found to provide security in our schools other than a tax increase … “This tax was sprung on the people of Terrebonne Parish in just the past two weeks, and the committee believes more public input and discussion is needed before we strap ourselves with the highest combined state and local Sales & Use tax in the country.”

Such a tax, Republican Committee members said, would result in a Sheriff’s Office cushion of over $8 million, a lagniappe most government department heads would love to see, but business and property owners would likely loathe. A general anti-tax sentiment no doubt played a role in the rejection. One business leader, who asked not to be identified by name, said rejection of the tax “is deeper than “simply ‘Back the Blue’ or ‘It’s for the children’ vs ‘no new taxes’.”

“This is about people having to make a financial choice between the law enforcement family and their family,” the business owner said. “And people will choose their family every time. Times are tough, and we are taxed out. The people in charge better prove they’ve been good stewards of the money we sent. They better start changing the way they operate first before asking us for a renewal or new taxes again.”


Questions relating to school resource officers are moot at this point, although one of the officers who was notified of a layoff holds that position. What has baffled some business owners is that faced with precisely the problems he has cited, Larpenter did not take steps earlier to avoid disaster.

The sheriff says that he did.

It is true that in various scenarios, Larpenter made no secret of financial problems.

In 2016, he closed down a 250-bed capacity work-release center on Savanne Road. The sheriff said the closure would cost his budget nearly $1 million annually. But with work opportunities for the state inmates drying up in the stale local economy, Larpenter said what local jobs were left should be filled by workers who were not inmates.

In January of this year he closed the jail he created for female inmates after less than a year, citing fiscal woes, with the women returning to the main jail next door at Ashland.

“It’s economics,” said Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, whose order that women be moved from the 120-bed all-female jail to the main jail next door was fulfilled Friday. “I am no different than anybody else, school boards, everybody is in a financial crisis and everybody is hurting. There is no way I can maintain a $4 million shortfall every year.”

Female inmates are now bound for other parishes, either Jackson or Catahoula. Drops in sales tax collections, Larpenter said, are among factors that necessitated in-house austerity. Envisioned before the local economy tanked, transformation of the women’s jail from its former use as a juvenile detention center became too much of a burden, with a design that necessitated employee levels that no longer became tenable, Larpenter said.

The number of sentenced state inmates remaining in the Terrebonne jail system overall has been in free-fall since Louisiana began culling non-violent offenders from its prison system. That means less money paid by the state for their upkeep, which had been a steady revenue stream for the Sheriff’s Office in the past.


Larpenter’s caustic responses to the tax election results have made him vulnerable to criticism that the budget cuts layoffs are part and parcel of a “hissy-fit” brought about by the tax election results. Larpenter’s counter is that the finances are what they are, and that the actions he now takes are needed, if he is to avoid taking on more debt, as he has over the past two years.

“My last budget was hoping the economy would go up,” Larpenter said, referring to the local economic downturn that has led to high unemployment numbers, layoffs in local industries and closure of businesses, resulting in fewer tax dollars from which agencies like his can draw. “I borrowed $4 million last year and paid it back after we got our property taxes. I borrowed $6 million this year and will use $5.5 million by the end of December. When I get the property tax I will have to pay that back. For next year I don’t want to borrow $7 or 8 million.”

Larpenter said that prior to development of the tax proposal he had been hoping for enough of an economic recovery to stave off cuts and shutdowns. Costs that ate at his budgets included transformation of the department’s old record keeping system. Software from Zuercher Technologies, now in place, allowed cutting-edge computer assisted dispatch and mobile criminal records access from the field, in addition to other benefit and enhanced abilities to communicate with other agencies. Body camera purchases, begun in 2015, further ate away at department dollars.

Since 2014, Larpenter says — and records bear out — that there has been an $11 million deficit on his books, while costs continue to rise.

In 2017, the most recent year for which a state audit is available, sales tax revenue decreased by $550,000; civil and criminal fees dropped by $188,000, and the amount of money paid for feeding, keeping and transporting prisoners decreased by $925,814. There were some offsets, including the intake of $921,628 in other fees and grants.


Critics maintain that when faced with budget woes, Larpenter should have held off on capital expenditures while continuing to freeze raises. Larpenter’s response has been that law enforcement requires certain expenditures which, while optional in some private businesses, are mandated by laws and which can stave off civil rights lawsuits.

A concern Larpenter has expressed, based on the cuts he has started to make, is the effect during hurricane season if the region gets slammed with a big storm. The personnel cuts will mean fewer officers available for those types of assignments.

Vehicle purchases have been seized on by critics as well. Detailed examinations of automobile buys for the 2018 fiscal year show three vehicle purchases to date. From 2016-18, Sheriff’s Office records show $352,000 spent on vehicle purchases, representing 20 cars, or about 10 percent of Larpenter’s overall fleet.

Two other services that Larpenter will cut or eliminate — while not considered essential — involve the feeding of seniors, as well as inmate work crews to do clean-up after events, paint and clean buildings for public agencies and non-profits, and even in some cases, infrastructure.

“With a $10 million loss for us with not getting the tax passed, the parish government, the other agencies, the schools, they are going to lose $40 million worth of work,” Larpenter said.


As for the meals for seniors, prepared by inmates, Larpenter said he has never charged anything but the cost of deputies to supervise. Other sheriffs do charge their local council on aging offices for meals, in some cases more than $2 per day.

The senior meals were a topic of discussion when Larpenter made a plea for support of his tax to the Terrebonne Parish Council on Oct. 24., two weeks before the tax vote was scheduled. His appearance was in connection with a resolution before council members supporting school resource officers, and urging residents to vote, without telling them how to vote.

During a preamble that made some mention of schools and resource officers, Larpenter was upfront and clear about how the tax money would be used.

“If anybody wants to know the truth about how dire straits my office is in, we are losing $11 million since 2015, revenues we don’t have, and we are still providing the same services not only to people in this parish but people outside this parish. A $31 million budget down to $26 million, and I am borrowing $10 million over the past two years,” Larpenter said. That will not happen should this tax fail. We will have dire cuts in our office.”

After discussing the importance of school resource officers, Larpenter concluded with additional words outlining his fiscal condition, also telling council members that the tax, if passed, would fiscally stabilize his office for 20 or 30 years.

One council member, Dirk Guidry, asked questions about the cost to Larpenter’s office of providing 1,000 meals per day for seniors. The Sheriff estimated that cost at $50,000 per year. Guidry then asked Larpenter if he had gone to Council on Aging Director Diana Edmundson.

“No one is offering money,” Larpenter said. “I haven’t been paid by anybody.”

“She should have to come up with a little bit money too,” Guidry said.


In an interview, Edmundson said that Larpenter has never asked her for anything other than the $65,000 paid annually for a chief cook, who is a deputy.

“The most the sheriff has ever asked us for, is the $65,000 we are currently paying,” Edmundson said Monday. Edmundson’s agency purchases the food, the containers each meal is placed in, and transport to senior centers as well as homes. The actual number of meals, she said, is at about 900 per day.

The program that has inmates responsible for cooking meals is closely intertwined with the building and road cleanup duties for other inmates, all of whom live in quarters above the Terrebonne Parish courthouse.

It is the cost of keeping those quarters staffed and secure on a full-time, full-population basis that has Larpenter planning to close down the programs. He could, as Guidry suggested, charge the Council on Aging on a per meal basis, as Sheriff Craig Webre does for similar services in Lafourche Parish. Webre’s program, however, which costs about $2.85 cents per day, includes the purchase of food, which Larpenter’s does not and likey would not.

The costs associated with the meals, along with the work program that has been a centerpiece of Larpenter’s public service activities, have not been sought from any agency, whether the Council on Aging, the school system or Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government.


That is another reason business leaders, upon learning of the layoffs and cuts, have been critical of Larpenter. Their own businesses, they maintain, would approach such a budget crisis differently.

As the tone of public discussion regarding the cuts grows more shrill, deputies who patrol the roads — the backbone of Larpenter’s operation — say they are handling the controversy well and that it does not interfere with their ability to do their jobs.

Anxiety over who might get cut has passed, now that the letters have been issued, some said. Several interviewed over the past week have expressed support for Larpenter, noting that during his tenure he has brought great change to the agency.

Attempts to speak with deputies who are on the layoff list were not successful; those contacted through telephone calls or Facebook private messenger did not respond.

But support for those laid off is evident on social media, through posts of jobs that might be suitable for officers facing the axe.

Responses outside the department over layoffs and cuts — as with the failed tax proposal — ultimately comes down to the degree of trust and support that exists for Larpenter himself, who maintains that he has approached the issues pragmatically. Like any CEO, he said, salaries and numbers of personnel are expenses over which he has the most control, explaining personnel cuts he insists he did not want to make unless absolutely necessary. Expenses, he said continue to mount.

“Cars are not cheap, gas is not cheap, insurance is not cheap,” Larpenter said. “We have expenses for work on the motor pool and the rifle range, the training academy. We do more than many law enforcement agencies. I guess some people would rather we brought some targets out in the wood to shoot.”

“We have nine facilities. We built all this without asking taxpayers for additional money. Right now I am no different than the oilfield companies that have lost jobs,” Larpenter said. “You had better blame the world because of economics. It all trickles down to Terrebonne Parish, no matter who would be the sheriff. I am not the only one. Three quarters of the sheriffs are going to be in a bind in this state. What’s interesting is I have not talked with a single person since that election who said they voted against that tax.” •

Jerry Larpenter