Deputy layoffs tip of a bigger iceberg

During his years of service as Sheriff of Terrebonne Parish, Jerry Larpenter has in many respects done an admirable job. His administration lifted the law enforcement agency from muck and scandal. As a young, eager law enforcement executive when he first took office, Larpenter steered the agency’s ship in some very good directions.

When he left the office in 2007 to seek the job of Terrebonne Parish President, without success, Larpenter left an enviable legacy. After that election, Larpenter could have entered private life, and remained there. But he was drawn back because of disagreement with how his successor, Vernon Bourgeois, approached the job of sheriff.

The veteran sheriff ran for his old job, unopposed.

When Larpenter left office, and when he returned, Terrebonne Parish was flush with money oilfield oilfield money. Larpenter promised sound management.

“We are going to have people willing to work. We are going to streamline to get back our finances over the next couple of years, but we are going to be working for the people of this parish,” Larpenter told The Times back then.

Re-election without opposition occurred in 2015, the same time that Terrebonne Parish started feeling the hurt from a retreating oil industry. As the parish’s financial fortunes declined, so did those of Larpenter’s office.

As financial problems became evident throughout the parish, owners of businesses affected by the downturn made difficult decisions. Some cut back non-profitable services. Others adapted in what ways they could. Many laid off personnel.

As Larpenter’s revenues fell and expenses grew, a decision was made to borrow money in order to stay solvent. The Sheriff has stated that he hoped things would get better, but they did not. Earlier this year he brought a half-cent sales tax proposal to the polls and the public voted it down. Sold primarily as a tax that would place a resource officer in every school, the campaign for the tax was short on the real reason it was needed — to patch up the sinking ship — with the hiring of resource officers and a promise of raises the candy-coating.

Voters didn’t buy it, and Larpenter was left with an unsolved problem. And so after considering his options, Larpenter sent layoff letters to 39 officers, most but not all assigned to the jail. There are early retirements. There will be closures of services that have been a hallmark of Larpenter’s administration.

Although he has occasionally tried to soften the rhetoric that followed the disappointment of the tax defeat, the message is clear. The continued financial problems, Larpenter maintains, are the fault of taxpayers who rejected his plan.

We don’t think that’s a fair assessment.

The steps Larpenter takes now, from layoffs to dismantling of a program that helps the Terrebonne Council on Aging, could and should have been explored thoroughly before the tax plan was ever floated. Nearly half of the Terrebonne Parish jail will be closed down, and inmates sent to far-reaching locations. As a result, the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government will have to pay in excess of $2 million, by most estimates, for boarding and transportation. Families of those inmate will be hampered from visitation, with some of the jails they are going to more than 200 miles away. A deal with the parish is possible that could see the inmates and officers retained, with a lower amount paid to Larpenter. But it is all in the talking stage. The time to explore these options was a year or more in the past, before Larpenter tried to go for a brass ring that would have given his office a cushion of nearly $10 million.

We would like to say, based on past performance, that we have confidence in Larpenter’s abilities to lead. But the more we look at the financials, the more we see evidence of poor decision making from the time he returned to office through the present. Larpenter says his agency is not unlike businesses facing challenges during the economic downturn. But he has not followed the model of those whose leaders made wise decisions that are keeping them afloat.

Anyone can keep a ship on course in seas that are placid, an keep it from going down. True mettle is determined when facing the storm. Jerry Larpenter’s attempt to salvage his office’s finances and his legacy have proved too little, too late.