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Louisiana legislative committee votes to take over Simmesport’s finances

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(The Center Square) — A legislative committee voted this week to move ahead with plans to put the town of Simmesport under fiscal administration after years of financial struggles.

“We did receive their most recent audit that was sent in late,” Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack told the Fiscal Review Committee on Wednesday. “It had a qualified opinion on several aspects of the financial situation and it appears that they’re just struggling financially.”

Town attorney Kirk LaCour told the committee the Simmesport Town Council recently approved a resolution supporting the transition to relinquish control of local finances.

“The mayor is on board and has fully agreed, as well,” he said. “We have a consensus and we wish to enter into a consent motion to the court for the appointment of a fiscal administrator.”

Officials have selected Joel Robideaux as the potential fiscal administrator who would work with local officials to rectify the ongoing financial issues, which are outlined in an affidavit from the LLA that will be presented to a court to approve the move.

Waguespack noted Robideaux, a certified public accountant and the former legislator and mayor-president of Lafayette, “definitely meets the qualifications to step in and be the fiscal administrator and advisor to the town of Simmesport.”

Simmesport’s most recently published audit from 2021 highlighted mounting money problems that were primarily tied to the town’s water and sewer utility systems and lack of proper oversight. The report pointed to a deficit fund balance of $93,458 at the end of the fiscal year and past due bills totaling nearly $600,000.

The audit points to a 20-year master utility service agreement with Sustainability Partners, LLC to provide upgrades and ongoing maintenance to the town’s water and sewer utility system that resulted in a lump sum payment to the town of $625,000 for the “exclusive usage right to full control over the sewer system in the event the Town defaults on its monthly utility service payments.”

“The usage right fee is recorded as a deferred inflow of resources in the water and sewer fund at June 30, 2021 and will be recognized as income over the twenty-year life of the master utility service agreement,” according to the report.

With the town’s growing liabilities, and the precarious status of its water system, “the Town’s inability to generate additional revenue and transfer excess funds from the Water and Sewer funds to satisfy the liability create an uncertainty about the Town’s ability to continue as a growing concern,” auditors wrote.

Those issues are compounded by others, including several that have plagued the town for years. They include inadequate segregation of accounting functions, inaccurate utility accounts receivables and customer deposits, utility customer account adjustments without proper documentation, no paper trail for traffic tickets, a general lack of internal controls to process and monitor financial transactions, and failure to collect on delinquent property taxes, among others.

Simmesport has also faced questions around the process for awarding raises to town officials, while the Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System filed a lawsuit against the town earlier this year over its failure to enroll full time police employees in the system.

The lawsuit followed years of unanswered letters from the system to Mayor Leslie Draper warning that state law requires enrollment. Draper did not attend the committee hearing on Wednesday.

Following approval from the Fiscal Review Committee, the Attorney General’s office will file a petition with the court to finalize the transition, which must be approved by a judge.

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