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Message from the Mayor

11/27/2019

Historic Washington Fights for its Life

The Town of Washington has, in past years, survived financial disaster where other Louisiana small towns have not been so lucky.  This limited success has been achieved solely by deploying police cruisers on I-49 to ticket speeding offenders as they passed through a very small part of town.  While issuing citations brought funds into the town treasury, it also brought the unfortunate designation of a ‘speed trap’ town along with the displeasure of state legislators who ran afoul of Washington police officers.

 

As citation funds came into the treasury Washington could meet its financial commitments.  Unfortunately, fortunes changed about four years ago.  Citation revenues dropped drastically, and collections of outstanding fines dropped significantly for a host of managerial reasons.  The loss of funds left Washington without the monies to support the needs of the small community,resulting in heavy debt and minimal resources to maintain essential services.  For the past eleven months the current administration has corrected the bookkeeping, searched for cost saving measures, and sold assets to help offset current debt. We have also presented a budget to the Council that closes non-essential services and barely provides for the essential services needed by the town.  The budget still heavily depends on the police to help fund the operations.

 

Since the first quarter of the year the town has been in constant communication with the State Auditors to review current conditions, projected budgets and alternate means of balancing a budget.  Budgets have been developed and sent to the auditors for review, comment, and suggestions. This has resulted in hard decisions to reduce and eliminate services the town simply has no money to support.  While the reduction and suspension of services is a bitter pill to the citizens of Washington, the failure to pay obligations already consumed is neither morally acceptable nor legally based on Louisiana Statues.

 

At the beginning of 2019 the town owed creditors, many of whom are local businesses within the parish over $600,000.  By the beginning of November this figure has decreased by approximately $90,000; however, the town is now falling behind in current essential payments such as insurance, workers compensation payments and monies due the state as a portion of citation revenue.  Payroll is met every two weeks only by deferring payments to vendors.

 

Washington is only one example of many small towns in Louisiana that have thrived in the past and found themselves ‘outdated’ in a world that overlooks small town America.  While the Steamboat Restaurant may be a destination for a night out, the day to day purchases that can bring sales tax revenue are more likely to be directed to big box stores or the internet. Just as important, the town must attract these types of businesses that can provide needed services and help increase the sales tax revenue. The revenue for small towns is diminishing and cannot be replaced by speeding citations.  The lack of alternative funding means small town Louisiana will expire at the side of the interstate.  The State of Louisiana must recognize the historical and cultural value these small towns bring to its own citizens and tourists alike. Washington has a proud and long history dating back to 1720.  Paddle steamers brought goods and passengers to the ‘edge of the world’ to embark on journeys west.  Washington helped the settlers on their way and prospered in the process.  Washington was the end of the waterway and the beginning of a new life.

 

As the importance of the rivers and bayous diminished so did Washington.  This is a story that can be told about many small towns in America that tell our history and continue to display some stunning architecture.  While some historic buildings have been preserved and others repurposed, many more are demolished or simply fall due to neglect.  Citizens of Washington are proud of the preservation efforts of its citizens and participation in the plans for tricentennial celebrations in 2020.

 

Income for any town comes from property taxes, a portion of the state sales tax spent in town, franchise fees for utilities, utility fees where the town provides the services and fines.  Sales tax funds are dependent on the number of businesses in town.  Franchise and utility fees are dependent on the number of households in town.  This leaves traffic citations as the variable.  This is the reason towns such as Washington become ‘speed trap’ towns.  There is little parish or state help to build a bridge to the future leaving small towns to fight for survival.

 

Washington is now deep in debt with few resources to pay the bills.  Our problem worsens by a lack of consensus and cooperation within our own Council to tackle the problem.  The town will soon default on essential payments to maintain staff, insurance and essential supplies needed to provide clean water.  

 

Our survival as an independent, solvent town starts with its citizens.  Our ability to remain independent requires the entire town to work together to both devise and execute a plan for fiscal health.  Each positive step forward will open new doors.  As an example, completed audits of prior fiscal periods opens the doors to grants that can help build and sustain infrastructure.  Grants can also help attract new business and interest in our aging real estate.

 

Historic Washington has a future as an independent town that can bring a remarkable part of Louisiana history alive to all who visit.  What it needs today is the solidarity and will of its citizens to work its way out of a financial condition created over many years of neglect.  Together we can move from issuing traffic citations to building community first initiatives to create a strong Washington with the help of Main Street Louisiana and many who want to see the town succeed.

 

James Oliver, Mayor

Town of Washington

 

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