Origin Bank debacle is going to leave a mark

By Luke Britt/Editor

Now that the dust has settled around the Landfill Assurance Trust Fund interest rate flap and the parish stands to reap healthy interest earnings for, at least, the next 18 months, it seems appropriate to assess how the community responded to that embarrassing financial misstep.

While the citizens of Union Parish were in no way responsible for the debacle, if we’re going to hold the Union Parish Police Jury and Origin Bank accountable for their respective roles, a little accountability on our own part is only fair. 

For those arriving late to the topic, in June and July we learned that Union Parish’s two largest bank accounts, with a combined value of nearly $18 million when the issue came to light, were earning and had earned for more than a decade very little interest. After a few weeks of much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Police Jury voted in July to accept a new offer from Origin Bank that guarantees a fixed rate of 5.13 percent interest on both accounts for the next 18 months, a rate that should more than make up for interest the parish would have earned if Origin Bank had been paying a fair rate all along. 

While it’s tempting to say everything worked out fine in the end, that isn’t the case. As with any crisis, we learned some things about the people caught up in it that The Gazette believes ought to be pointed out and considered by voters and public officials alike.

The first of these is how the public reacted to the initial news. Suddenly, we were all financial experts capable of calculating interest rates over time in our heads, and we quickly concluded that Origin Bank had greedily pulled a fast one that cost parish taxpayers millions of dollars. As we learned, however, the purported unpaid interest was less than we first imagined. Though not unsubstantial and certainly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (regardless of what Origin Bank CEO Drake Mills told those who attended the Police Jury Finance Committee meeting in July), the parish did not lose millions of dollars.

In fact, technically, the parish didn’t “lose” any money because Origin Bank was under no legal obligation to pay the parish any interest at all. If there was an agreement that established a benchmark from which to define what the parish should have been paid, we haven’t seen it, which leaves us adrift in that nebulous area known as what’s ‘right’ or what’s ‘fair.’

So, the claims – some of which appeared in this newspaper – that the parish was grifted for millions were entirely inaccurate. The Gazette regrets trumpeting those inaccurate estimates.

If we’re going to demand honest, responsible leadership from our Police Jury, we should offer something similar in return.  The next time it appears the jury has dropped the ball, let us reserve judgment and resist the temptation to play gotcha until we have all the facts. 

To their credit, within days of the learning there was a problem some jurors began taking responsibility for their failure to properly oversee the Landfill Assurance Trust Fund. Before it was over The Gazette spoke with all but two jurors (we tried to reach them all, but that pair just wasn’t interested), and each acknowledged that they should have been paying closer attention.  To those jurors we say, good for you. Taking responsibility is the first step in rectifying any mistake. 

So, taking responsibility – check. Honesty, on the other hand, nope, at least not from every juror. Transparency, not even close.

Know this Union Parish: Louisiana National Bank was never going to get those accounts. There is no question that Origin Bank is a generous institution with its charitable giving and community involvement, and the jury’s predisposition toward forgiving the bank’s lack of attentiveness to these accounts, actually, is quite defensible.

So why the dog and pony show of pretending to consider LNB’s bid? And for the record, LNB’s offer absolutely was the better bid right up to the last minute when the jury allowed Origin Bank to slip in an offer shortly before the vote without giving LNB a chance to counter. It would have been better – and we mean this sincerely – to have taken the lesser offer and simply said, “We just like Origin more.”

That last minute offer, by the way, came via text message and did not commit Origin Bank to a fixed rate for 18 months. It was a craftily worded offer that did not say what jury members claimed it said just before the vote. We’ve seen the text. We’ve read it a dozen times. We’ve shown it to bankers and they concurred with our interpretation. It may seem irrelevant now given that Origin Bank did, in the end, deliver precisely what the jury described in that meeting, but we are certain that some jurors, literally, faked their way through that vote.

Is it any wonder that some citizens are poised to pounce at your slightest misstep? Is it any wonder that Facebook is rife with allegations of corruption where none exists? It is precisely this type of disingenuous behavior and disrespect for the intelligence of the people of Union Parish that impairs your ability to lead, not because you can’t lead or don’t want to, but because these self-inflicted wounds make it difficult for many people to trust you to do so with integrity. 

The deal struck between Origin Bank and Union Parish is good deal that will make the parish whole, more than whole, in fact, and it’s a shame we can’t bring ourselves to congratulate anyone for it.

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