When public officials spend tax money on crowd pleasing projects, they might be said to bribe us with our own money, which is fine. They are doing their job after all.
Since we are used to the idea that politicians are generally lacking in the probity department, moreover, we can handle it if some of the financial background is a little murky.
It's all a bit murky right now in Jefferson Parish, where huge sums are handed out pretty much at the sole discretion of council members.
This being an election year, spending will reach a fever pitch. It all appears to be within the law, so we can't call it a slush fund. But it sure partakes of the quality of one.
The discretionary accounts that council members have awarded themselves have been overflowing in recent years. Since 2020, they have razooed well over $120 million in revenues from various taxes and licensing fees.
The money is in the gift of a seven-member council, although it is the five district members who largely control the purse strings. The two at-large members have been fobbed with just under a couple of million each in bonus moolah since 2020, while the fattest of the council fat cats, Byron Lee, has been making friends with more than $32 million.
That members do not exactly revere your right to know became apparent at the council's April meeting, when they had to decide what to do with the parish's $84 million share of the federal American Rescue Plan, established to soften the financial impact of the coronavirus.
The council, being obliged to give the feds an accounting of what it does with their COVID money, allocated the entire caboodle to payroll. This was a smart dodge, because it liberated $84 million from the parish's general fund, and the feds cannot stick their noses there.
Council members were then free to splurge on causes they deemed likely to catch the attention, and earn the gratitude, of as many registered voters as possible ahead of the fall elections.
Term limits in recent years may have made it impossible to turn some local offices into a job for life, but there is generally a chance to run for something else when time has expired. District parish council members, for instance, can run for an at-large seat, as they are keen to do right now in Jefferson Parish, even though a promotion means much less money to throw around.
Council members “for the most part dismissed the notion that discretionary funds are an effective tool to woo voters,” this newspaper reported, while Dominick Impastato, who is seeking to oust his at-large colleague Scott Walker, said any official who thinks spending public money can “garner votes,” is “sadly mistaken.” That would make just about every candidate in the country sadly mistaken, including, apparently, East Bank district council member Jennifer Van Vrancken, who is challenging Ricky Templet for his at-large council seat.
Van Vrancken tried to spend $100,000 of her district stash on an elevated walkway on the other side of the river in Westwego. Her resolution authorizing that failed when her colleagues apparently suspected and that she was straying outside her turf in an attempt to parlay the walkway into a move-up on the council.
Public office, whatever the financial reward, can be highly addictive.
Email James Gill at email@example.com.