Follow the money…

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This is how things are done, but is there a better way?

That question will be revisited further in this article.

When perusing pre-filed bills by local senators and representatives for this legislative session, one stood out. Rep. Col. Kenny Cox pre-filed a bill that would essentially have the City Marshal’s office removed from collecting certain fees and costs under a separate authority. Time to get out the shovels and begin digging, and not in the way that will produce vegetables or flowers, the kind of digging that will hopefully produce answers.

• Dig through the topsoil

The City Marshal’s office is the keeper of Ward 1 City Court that includes all of the City of Natchitoches and the area outside city limits, but included in Ward 1. They provide security for City and juvenile court, serve evictions, warrants, garnishments, fine payment warrants and more. Their operating budget comes from their percentage of warrant and ticket fees, City Court rulings and filing fees they collect.

This article published in the Thursday, April 22, 2021, print edition

The Marshal’s office is a stand alone entity and the City Marshal is an elected official. The office is not governed by the City, but falls under the umbrella of the City’s financial responsibilities. The office is staffed by City Marshal Randy Williams, three full time officers paid by the city and three part time officers paid by the Ward 1 Marshal’s office. The City is also responsible for providing office space, supplies, vehicles, fuel, auto insurance and retirement benefits for the Marshal. The City Police Dept. pays the utilities per state law.

•The City’s role

To understand the City’s involvement in the Marshal’s office finances, one must follow the money trail. First, fines and fees come from the aforementioned sources as well as a percentage of every ticket written by City Police. When fees are collected from any source, Marshal’s office or City Police, they are deposited into the “Police Bond (313)” account. Then, based on their records, the Marshal’s office sends a request every month to the City Finance Dept. to get back their portion. Yes, it goes from the marshal’s office to the city then back to the marshal’s office. The City keeps their designated portion.

As City Finance Manager Debbie Miley said, “Every ticket, fine and fee collected goes to multiple entities. Everyone gets their piece of the pie.”

•The Statute

State Revised Statute 2082 states the marshal serves as deputy city tax collector and deputy city license tax collector of Natchitoches, and is authorized to reimburse automobile travel expenses in connection with his duties, not to exceed $50 a month.  Subsection 1883 states the marshal shall be paid $50,000 annually by the City. The Parish Government must contribute $1,200 annually to the City towards the salary.

•Things changed

At some point in previous mayoral and marshal terms of office, distributions changed. The question is, was it temporary or permanent? An apparent agreement between the City and a former marshal allowed the City to keep funds in exchange for benefits and an annual 2% pay raise for the marshal, who ultimately retired making a salary of $62,000 annually. After those elected officials left office, the exchanged funds did not revert to the Marshal’s office, with the exception of the marshal’s salary, which reverted to $50,000 plus benefits.

•Intangible funds

So where did that money from fines and fees go? Did the City keep it? The City Marshal’s office says yes, while Miley’s records show they do not. Think about paying off a $500 per month car loan. When that loan is paid off, do you have an “extra” $500 in hand? Usually, the answer is no. Households adjust their budget and that money gets disbursed into other things like additional groceries. The same thing happened with the money that was going to the former Marshal’s salary. It was “paid off” when he retired and the money was absorbed by increasing insurance and retirement costs according to Miley. Both the City and Marshal’s office audits from the last several years show there is no misappropriation of funds.

•Raising fees

In addition, Cox’s bill would authorize the marshal to raise fees from the current $20, to $30 for each service rendered. Williams stated in a letter requested by the Times, “I want to get in line with all the other City Marshals in the state that are approximately the size of Natchitoches. The increase in funds will be used for much needed equipment and training for my officers. This new bill will restore the law to its previous position.”

Marshal’s officers are using their personal service weapons, of different calibers and makes, and individually purchase their own uniforms and equipment, including Kevlar vests according to Williams. He said while they meet POST certification guidelines, as required by all law enforcement, additional training is not in the budget. In addition, the office pays their rent, office supplies and maintenance according to Williams.

•Present Law unearthed

Present law (R.S. 13:5807(B)) provides that 60% of the fees collected be deposited in the marshal’s equipment and training fund and be used to assist in the purchasing or updating of necessary equipment and officer training. This, according to the accounting firm that audits the City Marshal’s financials, is a new account that will be set up this year.

•Time to plant

What happens if the Cox bill passes? That is a good question. The City financials show the disbursements are in order. The City Marshal’s office believes there should be approximately $10-12,000 additional funds annually diverted to their office.

Are standard accounting practices being observed by moving funds from one agency to another then back?

Are other agencies using the same back and forth method?

Did politics muddy the system?

Back to our original question…. This is how things are done, but is there a better way?

You decide.

Multiple requests for comment from Rep. Cox’s and the Natchitoches Mayor’s office received no response.