Parish Council told it’s too broke to improve early voting, jail or courthouse

The gist: Only a few weeks in, and the new Parish Council is beginning to grapple with its budget woes. Consolidated government’s chief financial officer painted a bleak picture: Funds for the jail and courthouse will dry up, and there’s no money to add more early voting locations.

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Taxes passed for Downtown, the Northside and a riverwalk

The gist: Five sets of sales and hotel taxes were approved by city council members, acting as the governing boards of new special districts created to vigorous objection in the wrap-up of the last council and administration’s term. Legal and political hurdles remain, but as it stands the taxes would take effect in July. 

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, the outgoing consolidated council and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux created five special taxing districts — called economic development districts. Because the district maps are drawn to avoid voters, they can levy taxes without a general election, leading opponents to cry foul. A lawsuit was filed to stop them. And the mayor-president has spoken out against them, announcing Tuesday that he’ll propose an ordinance to repeal them next month. Here are the districts and their taxes:

  • Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • University Gateway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Trappey Economic Development District  – 2% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Northway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy

Tuesday’s vote to levy taxes was an anti-climax. Opposition to the districts continues by way of a lawsuit brought by conservatives — many of the same people who sued to stop the charter amendments — who say the districts flaut requirements in Lafayette’s charter — essentially, its constitution — that the public gets to vote on new taxes. Supporters counter that this is how all economic development districts are set up, as laid out in state law. 

“The question is not is it legal…but is it the right thing to do,” asked Jeremiah Supple, a Downtown property developer and one of the parties suing to stop the districts, on potentially dubious legal grounds. 

Disclosure: Jeremiah Supple donated to The Current in 2019. View our donors here.

Downtown’s district has been a lightning rod for the issue. It’s taken the brunt of criticism, becoming the scapegoat for the raft of taxes the Robideaux administration proposed in a bundle with days left in 2019. The Downtown Development Authority, which already levies its own property tax, champions the taxing district as a way to raise money for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Downtown advocates believe the $700,000 raised annually by a 1% sales tax and 2% hotel occupancy tax can help shore up aging sewer infrastructure, improve sidewalks and, long term, put new developments over the top. 

“Downtown is craving for infrastructure development,” DDA board chairman Miles Matt said, defending the Downtown district. A particular sore point is a lack of sewer capacity, which has restricted the scale of residential projects Downtown. In December, the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority inked a deal to loan $1 million to LUS to build a new sewer lift pump, which will provide some relief. But DDA and its sympathizers have groused about a lack of public investment in general, saying the last major project to happen within its boundaries was the streetscape overhaul of Jefferson Street in the 1990s. 

That came to a head over lost dollars for streetscape last year. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux shifted $5.8 million set aside for improvements along Main Street, money that had sat idle for years, to pay for other projects. DDA fought the transfer unsuccessfully but managed to keep $1 million for engineering and planning on the Main Street project. 

Still, opponents view this as a way to fatten developers’ wallets. All of the EDD agreements — which are contracted with some private and some public partners — include wishlists of project types that are OK’d for funding by the district. Hotels, restaurants and other private enterprises are on the boilerplate lists for approved uses. Charles Landry, the Baton Rouge attorney hired to craft the districts, argued Tuesday night that the council members, acting as the individual members of each board, alone have the discretion to approve projects for funding. They, not the developers, control the purse strings. Landry also defended how the districts were set, saying dozens have been authorized by state law across Louisiana, none with a public vote. That’s just how these things are done, he argued Tuesday night in a spar with Councilman Andy Naquin. 

The issue isn’t dead. And it’s likely to remain a political sticking point for ascendant conservative activists who have seized the issue since last year. The lawsuit filed by Supple and others is awaiting a response from city-parish attorneys but may fizzle; the plaintiffs appear to have rested their case on the wrong statute. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has aligned himself politically with the faction fighting the districts and made a campaign pledge to Republican donor Will Mills to oppose any tax increase. He announced late Tuesday afternoon his intent to repeal the districts with an ordinance next month. It doesn’t look like he’ll have the votes; the taxes passed 3 – 1 last night with Naquin the lone dissenter. Councilwoman Liz Hebert was absent from the meeting but has voted for the districts in prior steps. This marks the first real public rift between the mayor-president and the council on public policy. 

What’s next. The districts will begin collecting tax revenues in July, at the start of the new fiscal year. Until there’s money in the bank, so to speak — and to be clear, this money is not rolled into LCG’s budget; the districts are separate entities — there’s not a whole lot for the districts to do.

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‘My mission is to uncover that hidden history’ — Phebe Hayes

Historically people have tried to weaken the image of black men and women. Phebe Hayes wants to fix that.

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Embattled mayoral aide lands $79K job with state’s ATC

The gist: Marcus Bruno, former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s embattled aide, has landed a job with the state’s division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.

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Council Preview: Special taxes, LCG pension changes, green infrastructure

The gist: Both the city and parish council agendas are light this week. That makes plenty of room for what should be a lively slate for the five economic development districts created earlier this year.  The city council members will vote to levy sales and hotel occupancy taxes in their boundaries.

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Economic Development Districts 

Special taxes for special districts: Five special taxing districts, called economic development districts, were created earlier this year to raise revenue for economic development within their boundaries. On Tuesday, the district governing authorities — the members of the city council — will hold a public hearing and vote to levy sales and hotel occupancy taxes. A lawsuit has challenged the districts on procedural grounds. Here are the districts and their proposed taxes: 

  • Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • University Gateway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Trappey Economic Development District  – 2% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Northway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy

Something to keep in mind: These are meetings of the district governing authorities, not the city council. The council members make up the district authorities as individuals, not as a council. Those governing authorities alone determine what’s done with the money. 

Joint Council  

Green infrastructure grant application. The Planning Department is seeking approval to apply for a grant to contract help in developing guidelines for green infrastructure. Green infrastructure broadly refers to natural systems or designs for managing stormwater and addressing flood risks. Think bioswales and natural drainage channels. This is a resolution. 

Changes to public employee retirement benefit. Billed as another cost-saving measure that could cut “hundreds of thousands of dollars” — according to an internal memo — from future budgets, the administration wants to swap out state retirement plans for municipal employees, excluding police, fire and city court. The proposal would require future employees to enter the state’s parochial employee retirement system instead of the municipal employee retirement system. This item is up for introduction.

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Josh Guillory on LUS, I-49, Pride Month and ‘traditional values’

Lafayette’s conservative m-p on a range of topics, controversies and issues on the horizon.

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‘We weren’t wanted there, and the teachers made it known’ — Chris Williams

The former councilman reflects on racism during the school integration era.

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COLUMN: Rushing to shakeup LUS and Fiber is risky. Let’s take a deep breath first.

Efforts to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by consolidating IT departments could create risks that cost Lafayette millions of dollars. We need experienced leadership in place first before considering this proposal.

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Guillory will launch nationwide search for new police chief

The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory says he will start a nationwide search for a new police chief in the next 30 days and confirmed for the first time plans to eliminate Deputy Chief Reggie Thomas’s position.

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Guillory pushes forward LUS/Fiber reorg ahead of naming permanent directors

The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory intends to stick with interim directors at LUS and LUS Fiber for several more months while moving to combine their IT personnel with LCG’s IT department. Both interim appointments, made by the last administration, were said to be “short-term” and of questionable qualifications. The reorganization has met some resistance. 

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The main pitch is cost savings. Pooling personnel could save $500,000 a year on IT services, according to Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter. This would primarily be achieved by using the consolidation to staff currently vacant positions, in a combined innovation group overseen by LCG Chief Information Officer Randy Gray. All 31 employees in the LUS network engineering division would come under Gray’s supervision.

“The next director is going to be in a better position,” Wingerter says. “It’s going to produce incredible savings across the board.”

Interim directors for LUS and LUS Fiber will remain in place for “several months,” Wingerter confirms. Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles were installed over LUS and Fiber, respectively, by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to oversee an inquiry he launched into questionable payments made over the years by LUS and consolidated government to Fiber. Those payments allegedly amounted to millions in illegal subsidies to the municipal telecom. Both Duhon and Miles have remained in their positions despite the apparent wrap up of that investigation late last year. The findings were reported to the Public Service Commission, which has some oversight over Fiber, at the end of 2019. 

The administration has been courting council members this week. Both parish and city council members would need to vote on a joint ordinance to approve the reorganization, just as they did with the administration’s successful bid to split up the Public Works Department. Administration officials met with City Councilwoman Liz Hebert and Parish Councilman Bryan Tabor Wednesday, rolling out a slide deck presentation to talk them through the plan. 

“I feel like it’s moving too fast,” Hebert says. “If it’s a great idea now, it’ll be a great idea when the [LUS] investigation is over.” Hebert says she wants to wait for permanent directors to be appointed and for an independent, forensic audit of LUS and Fiber’s finances to be completed. 

There is some concern about how the combined IT group would be budgeted and how it would affect the day-to-day work of LUS network engineers. It’s unclear how costs would be allocated between city and parish dollars and those of LUS ratepayers. LUS is self-funded by its utility sales, and annually contributes millions to the city general fund each year. Conceivably, the CIO would have control over the LUS network budget, which would in turn impact utility operations. The IT groups for LUS and LCG have roughly similar personnel costs, around $2.5 million. 

Lowell Duhon, left, was named interim LUS director by Joel Robideaux. LUS’s consulting engineer says Duhon is not qualified to hold the interim position.

Saving money may not be the right objective. Independent IT Consultant Doug Menefee believes LCG’s IT department is underfunded and understaffed. He argues that a reorganization could make sense, if the net effect is to improve the resources available for cybersecurity in particular. Cyberattacks hampered services in the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles last year. He warns that saving money should not be the prime objective. 

“Consolidation shouldn’t come from cost savings but from efficient use of talent,” Menefee says, noting IT talent can be tough to find. There’s usefulness, he argues, in having a “single throat to choke” and in pooling skills. LUS may have resources that LCG’s IT group could benefit from.  

LUS advocates say this is a bad idea altogether. Former LUS top manager Andrew Duhon circulated an email to council members arguing that the plan puts LUS operations at risk. Duhon supervised the divisions targeted by the reorg. LUS network engineers are integrated into the utility’s everyday work, he says, including its power grid, cybersecurity systems, customer service applications and more. 

A “whistleblower” letter called the reorganization a “power grab” to prop up the city’s 311 initiative. The anonymous letter, sent around to media outlets on Jan. 21, prompted Guillory to dismiss the concerns, saying the plan was at the “beginning of the beginning.” Claiming to be an LUS employee, the tipster said there is no reason to “move control” for the sake of collaboration. 

LUS staff have reportedly been kept out of the loop. In his letter, the former CFO claims LUS staff members have been blocked out of the proposal’s development, which Wingerter denies. Asked to name specific LUS employees, she declined, citing only the interim director.

“Since LUS and LUS Fiber lack permanent directors, there is no real advocate for LUS,” Andrew Duhon writes in his letter to council members. 

Lowell Duhon took a considerable pay bump when Robideaux made him interim LUS director. He served as Robideaux’s CAO for all but the last few months of Robideaux’s term, until he was moved to LUS to oversee the investigation, boosting his annual pay from $125,000 to $250,000. That substantial raise garnered suspicion that Robideaux’s motives for the appointments were a kind of patronage. Robideaux tied the leadership shuffle to a request by the PSC, which the PSC subsequently denied.  

Consultants have questioned both Duhon’s and Miles’ qualifications. NewGen Strategies and Solutions, the consulting engineer required by LUS’ bond contracts, found both Duhon and Miles “lacking” in the appropriate experience to manage the day-to-day affairs of LUS and Fiber. The firm voiced those concerns in a letter sent to Robideaux in November. Robideaux mollified the consultant’s concern by insisting the appointments would be “short-term” until qualified directors could be appointed by a new administration in early 2020. 

Wingerter says the inquiry is still going. And she notes that the administration and consulting engineer have a “difference of opinion” about Lowell Duhon’s and Miles’ qualifications. She said new questionable charges have surfaced but declined to go into details. Lowell Duhon’s role, however, is not limited to the apparently ongoing investigation, she says, adding that the former CAO  oversees customer service, finance and other LUS activities. 

“He was the boss of the previous directors,” Wingerter says, defending Lowell Duhon’s fitness to run LUS.

LUS and Fiber both face a great deal of uncertainty in 2020. LUS is in the middle of a power planning process, set to wrap up this year, that could lead to a decision to retire and replace the coal-fired power plant that accounts for half the system’s electricity generating capacity. Fiber’s fate is largely in the hands of the PSC, which is purportedly reviewing the results of Robideaux’s 2019 investigation.

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Portrait: Marcelle Fontenot

'No, you see color' — Marcelle Fontenot

The veteran newswoman reflects on her experience as a black woman in Acadiana. Part of the Voices of Race in Portrait exhibition showing this month at AcA.

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Council Preview: More charter housekeeping and some tax breaks

The gist: The city and parish councils have another slow night scheduled for their meetings on Feb. 4 with a smattering of housekeeping. The only big items on the agenda are two resolutions to approve restoration tax abatements for redevelopment projects.

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Joint Council

Tax breaks. There are two resolutions on the agenda to approve requests for restoration tax abatement. This state program allows owners to invest in restoring their properties without having to increase their property taxes for a period of time because of the increased value of their restored property. 

  1. University Place Apartments. These apartments were purchased for $12.5 million by Alpha Capital Partners of Pennsylvania through its Opportunity Zone Fund last year. The plan is to invest $7.5 million in renovating the interior and exterior of this building. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego generating an additional $564,995 in property taxes.
  1. Park Place Surgery Center. This property was purchased for $4.1 million by local investment group Imperial Property Holdings last year. The plan is to invest $5 million in renovating and expanding the building for a new surgery center. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego paying an additional $675,995 in property taxes.

If both are approved, over the next five years LCG will be giving up more than $1.2 million in additional property taxes. Both projects were announced last year as moving forward with no mention of the need for potential restoration tax abatements to be financially viable. 

A new Professional Services Review committee. This five-member committee reviews and recommends approval of contracts with LCG. The amended chartered required a reconfiguration of the committee. Each council will nominate one member, both to serve through the end of 2023. The mayor-president has one appointment, and the other two seats are taken by the public works director and the utilities director.  

Separate Councils

An intergovernmental agreement to give city fire department equipment to parish fire protection. This agreement allows the parish to use 10 outdated radios that the city fire department isn’t using anymore. But determining how the parish is allowed to continue using city equipment given the split councils is an issue that will need to be addressed moving forward.

Donating adjudicated properties to Holy Family School. The two properties in question are at 139 S. Bienville St. and 213 S. Bienville St.

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