The craziness of CATS

Look at the $18 million headache CATS has created trying to solve a $300,000 problem.

To be fair, officials with the “parishwide” bus system aren’t really sure if what they’re dealing with is $18 million … or $17 million … or $15 million … or $11.4 million. Then again, it could be $30 million … or $29 million … or $25 million … or $23.4 million. When it comes to CATS, financial figures morph as easily and as frequently as the T-1000 cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

This odyssey of confusion began in late 2011 when CATS officials declared fiscal year revenues were running $300,000 short and, as goes their theory, the bus system would have to shutter in July of this year if the money didn’t materialize. Other than that point, let’s not rehash the past as it relates to how and why the 10.6-mill property tax proposal found its way onto the April ballot. Anyone living in Baton Rouge with a pulse—as well as regular readers of this column or my Facebook posts—is keenly aware of the pros and cons of the proposal that was ultimately defeated by voters in Zachary but approved by those in incorporated Baton Rouge and Baker. As Lindsey Nelson would say while narrating Notre Dame football highlights, “And now, on to further action.”

Troubling today is not what led up to the April tax election but, rather, what has happened since.

To begin, we learned the property tax that CATS officials swore prior to the election was exempt from the homestead exemption is actually not exempt: meaning the first $75,000 of assessed property value is tax-free. Folks at CATS explained away this revelation by saying it didn’t really matter and the roughly $2 million annual hit would have little negative impact on the system’s ability to make good on its tax package promises.

Scarier is what we’re learning as a result of a lawsuit challenging the tax election, which is requiring CATS employees, under oath, to speak the truth.

Creighton Abadie, a lawyer for the bus system, said in court that CATS was not involved with a Blue Ribbon Commission’s plan to boost alternative transportation options in the parish, adding it was wrong to link CATS to the group or its plan to create a special taxing district and hold a November election or its goal of improving mass transportation in the parish.

Stunning is what came the next day, Oct. 16, when Gary Owens, CFO of CATS, disclosed the tax approved by voters wouldn’t generate the revenue to deliver the promises made by CATS prior to the election. In particular, six of the eight express routes promised to voters were now off the table.

The revenue shortfall, said Owens, was due to 1) the tax not being approved by voters in Zachary (a loss of $1.1 million), 2) the homestead exemption revelation ($2 million), 3) the likelihood of the Metro Council not continuing its annual CATS contribution ($3 million) and 4) the expected loss of monies from the parish transportation fund ($600,000).

Losing $6.7 million before the first penny of tax revenue is even collected understandably might impact the plan’s implementation. What’s inexcusable is CATS approving a budget and an operations plan that are both dependent upon revenues that never were likely to materialize.

Even if CATS had to come up with a budget prior to the election, why would officials think the tax would pass in Zachary? If the rush to an April election date was predicated on the fear that the Metro Council wouldn’t come up with a $300,000 lifeline, why would anyone assume that the same council would continue $3.6 million in annual subsidies once CATS got a dedicated funding source? As for the homestead exemption issue, that’s self-inflicted stupidity. Whoever approved a CATS budget relying on those assumptions should be fired for gross incompetence.

This isn’t about revisiting the past or trying to undo the results of an election, though there are those, including mayoral candidate Mike Walker, who are vowing to do just that. Rather, this is about the massive credibility hit suffered by CATS, a public entity already running a deficit in the credibility department. This is about the problems CATS is creating for other government entities—like BREC, the library system and the public school system—who will want to ask voters to either renew a tax or approve a new one in the near future. Suburban voters are leery enough about taxes, yet CATS is managing to turn moderates into Tea Party activists.

The question is whether or not those at CATS care about the needless damage they’ve done in this community. The answer will be revealed in their actions.

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