Those of us in Baton Rouge who actually pay taxes to the state of Louisiana probably don’t realize it, but we have a growing problem on our hands. So, too, do the tax-paying residents of New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles and Shreveport.
With each passing month, more and more of the tax dollars coming from one of the state’s semi-thriving metropolises is going to the rather pointless effort of keeping some dying, rural town on life support.
Just this month, state government came to the rescue of two more cash-strapped cities—Bogalusa and Sterlington—lifting us to seven towns in the midst of a state bailout. Of greater concern: there are eight others likely to soon join this critical care list, and all-in, according the legislative auditor’s office, as many as 60 Louisiana communities are on the brink of financial disaster.
Simply put, these once-charming and quaint hamlets now find themselves on death’s doorstep, no longer able to generate enough cash to pay even the most basic of public-sector bills.
Many have barely functioning water systems. One bet big—and lost—on a save-the-day sports complex. Others are in the death-grip of unfunded retirement debt. All are hemorrhaging residents, who are either fleeing to another state or a Louisiana city with something resembling an actual pulse.
Sad, no doubt; tragic even—but the question is what should we do about it?
Let ’em die.
Time, the desires of where and how young people live, and the demands of a global economy powered by knowledge, research, creativity and innovation are conspiring to make these places financially unsustainable. And the taxpayer cost of keeping them alive for nostalgia sake isn’t worth it.
To borrow the business word du jour, these places never saw—or failed to see—“disruption” coming, and in an adapt-or-die world these towns wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt.
Take Bogalusa, for instance. The paper mill town has seen its population drop by 50% since 1970, to roughly 12,300; yet the place still is financially maintaining as many streets, according to The Advocate, as Metairie and is on the hook for the salaries of 29 police officers and 31 firefighters. Seriously, why does a town of 12,000 need 29 cops? But what’s putting Bogalusa out of business is the place only has enough cash to fund 17% of its local pension obligations, and the money it does have to cover the retiree tab could run out by as early as 2021.
As it stands now, Bogalusa’s problems—and those of 59 other dying towns across Louisiana—are quickly becoming the state’s problems. And the state’s problems are being bankrolled by those of us living in sorta solvent cities like Baton Rouge.
Instead of the dollars we send to the state helping fund a new, much-needed bridge over the Mississippi River, it will, instead, cover some other place’s retirement bill, or build a new water system for a place that’s dying of natural causes.
Let’s be clear, if throwing money at the problem would actually bring the dead back to life then these state bailouts might—just might—be a defendable position. The concern shouldn’t be how much or how little state government (or any other government) is spending, but, rather, what’s the return on those tax-dollar investments?
Frankly, the wiser investment is to simply cut each family in these dying towns a check to help them relocate to a place that can actually afford to sustain itself.
That won’t happen.
What will happen—in a bit of hypocritical irony—is people will plead for a big government-style bailout.
It’s amazing how the people of this state—who allegedly adore small government, abhor taxes, believe public dollars are generally wasted, love Donald Trump and wrap themselves in the flag of self-reliance when it comes to poor black people—can so easily embrace the glory days of Huey Long-style populism when it quenches some self-serving thirst.
And it’s not just those in dying towns. Officials in Livingston Parish, one of the state’s fastest-growing parishes and home to some of its most conservative voters, went begging for state dollars a few years ago to build surface roads to alleviate local traffic woes. Why is that a state problem?
Without question, it’s a shame these rural towns are dying, but nothing at this point can stop their demise. The only practical option is to let them simply fade away.