8 Investigates: The Sterlington financial crisis
"What I'm going to say is that it's just going to be decisions that were made that all the information was not available." That's what Sterlington's Mayor Caesar Velasquez said when asked how the town incurred its debt.
"We had a financial adviser who did advise the town and give us the information as to how we were going to go forward, how we were going to make our money, and how we were going to pay off this debt," Velasquez said. "And I'm not sure that we had all the information to make a good, knowledgeable decision."
Decisions that over the past few years, put Sterlington more than $20 million in the hole. Velasquez says the town owes money to six different banks, with loans for two major projects - a now $12 million water fight with Greater Ouachita Water Company, and $8 million for a state-of-the-art sports complex.
"Hindsight's always 20/20, and I wish that we could go back in time and correct those issues," Velasquez said. "Matter of fact, I'd make some different decisions when it came to certain things."
Adding insult to injury, was the way town leaders were eating out on taxpayer dime. KNOE poured over hundreds of credit card receipts from 2016 to 2018. We found town leaders, led by then-Mayor Vern Breland, ate at local restaurants on town dime 92 times, spending $5,831.49 on these meals.
They ate at places like The Fish House, El Azteca, Fiesta Linda, even Samurai One, which doesn't even exist anymore.
For context, KNOE reached out to the City of Monroe about their policy, and if Mayor Jamie Mayo and the city council have ever charged local meals to the city's credit card.
In a statement, Monroe's Director of Administration Stacey Rowell said, "Local meals are strictly prohibited under our policies and procedures. We would allow only under very special circumstances, i.e. very special guest or occasion."
Though $5,800 is nowhere near $20 million, since becoming mayor, Velasquez says he's put an end to this type of spending.
"The mayor has, I'm going to say, has the right to do what he thinks is in best interest of the town," Velasquez said. "So if he's talking to developers, you can constitute that if it comes to fruition. [That said] I'm going to be fiscally responsible for what happens going forward and I've talked to my council, and I've let them know we're not going to make frivolous expenses just because we can. This is going to go back to tightening up the belts and living like paupers to a degree so we can get back to solvency. That's my number one goal."
So how does Sterlington get back to solvency?
Velasquez says raising the sales tax would be a good start. He says the town desperately needs it since those dollars are tied to the banks.
One hundred percent of the sales tax revenues are dedicated to the bonds," he said. "We used to get a small portion of them, but right now we're not getting any, because of our collection agreement with some of these banks."
Next, the mayor says his administration has to find a way to make this new ballpark profitable.
"I mean we've already paid for it," he said. "It's here. It's ours. It's our debt. Now, we've got to maximize our return on it. It's just basic, basic business structure. You've got to maximize your return on investment."
Ideas include advertisements along the outfield wall, hosting more concerts, and maybe even selling the whole ballpark.
"It's not off the table," Velasquez said. "I want to put it out there that we will definitely consider it. We will definitely consider any sort of creative process that will work with it."
All in all, the mayor says he's trying to stay positive and see the light at the end of this tunnel.
"I would like to say that within two years that we will be on steadier ground, and I believe there are things that will come up, and we're going to overcome this," he said.