LCG balances the budget and avoids cuts with plan to sell Buchanan garage to private interests

Photo by Allison DeHart

The gist: Following emergency budget meetings held this week, the council and administration patched an unexpected hole in the current parish budget with a windfall of sales tax collections and a new solution to the the Buchanan garage problem: sell it to private interests.

At a special noon meeting Thursday, the council amended the current parish budget to account for a higher than budgeted sales tax collection and a credit for the anticipated sale of the garage. The fiscal year began Nov. 1 in the red when the administration’s plan to sell the parish-owned garage to the city failed, dropping revenues by $770,000, the proposed sale price, and into a big deficit.

The council previously denied the mayor-president’s plan to sell the garage with some members calling the deal a bailout. Kenneth Boudreaux, one of the no votes earlier this month, says a private sale avoids saddling the city with the garage’s liabilities. Structural assessments estimate that repairs on the neglected building, which primarily serves the parish courthouse, could cost as much as $1.75 million. The cost to replace it could be considerably higher.

The administration’s budget for this upcoming year was balanced assuming the internal transaction had gone through. The failed sale and a decision to approve LCG employee pay raises combined for an estimated $800,000 to $900,000 hole in the parish budget. Major cuts were anticipated.

But it turns out the deficit wasn’t that big. At a Tuesday meeting between the council’s finance team and the administration, council members were  informed that the parish situation is not as dire as previously thought. “The shortfall actually came back at $256,000 in the parish budget,” according to Councilman Jay Castille, thanks to a late sales tax report. “We had some sales tax reports come in late, after September, that boosted some of the parish sales tax.”

On Thursday, a $500,000 credit was added to the current budget year (which began Nov. 1), reflecting the intent to sell the garage to private interests this year. Combined with the sales taxes, the council was able to budget back a general fund surplus. It’s unclear what the next steps are to get the garage sold once and for all, but the administration insisted the issue was a priority.

“Rest assured as soon as we feel like there are viable options in front us, we will have those conversations with the council,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux told the council Thursday. Robideaux told council members he’s unsure the current situation can be classified as an emergency, which would allow the parish to forgo a public bid process. City Attorney Paul Escott also could not answer that question.

So, uh, who are the interested buyers? Robideaux says that several buyers or partners are interested but did not identify them. The Current has learned that First Baptist Church Pastor Steve Horn wants to explore a potential public-private partnership with the parish, although it’s unclear if the church is among the unnamed parties Robideaux mentioned.

Horn and attorney Jimmy Davidson, a member of the church, met with Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret initially, Horn maintains, about the “immediate crisis of Downtown” parking and whether the church could help out (it couldn’t). Talks turned to the possibility of a public-private partnership that would put a garage back in commission.

“There could be a partnership that could work,” Horn says. “It’s too preliminary to have any idea of what that would look like, but it seems to me it’s worth the conversation.

“Our needs are growing. We don’t feel like we have property that we need for all of our long-range projects, specifically for the growth of our school,” Horn adds. “For example, if we could build on our existing parking [lot], we have to have a plan to recoup the parking that we’re going to lose. That’s our greatest interest.”

The church’s most pressing need is definitely Sunday mornings, when the garage is typically empty. The current lease holders (the garage was utilized by the courthouse, sheriff and district attorney) occupied it during the week, and it’s also used at night by those coming Downtown for entertainment. “It seems like we all need it at different times,” the pastor says.

Joel, can you call back please? On Oct. 25, Clerk of Court Louis Perret sent a letter to Robideaux, copying all parishwide elected officials, along with Horn and Davidson. “As you know, the tenants of the Lafayette Parish parking garage were given less than one day’s notice of the closure of the garage,” Perret writes. “Through text and repeated phone calls to your cell phone, as well as your office, I have been unable to speak with you concerning this situation.”

You fix it: Council members and the administration have been at odds on how to address the collapsing parish budget, which careens year to year with smaller and smaller reserves in its general fund. Robideaux drew public daggers last week from Castille and Council Chairman Naquin when he publicly opposed two new property taxes on the Nov. 6 ballot that could help the budget crisis. (Go vote.) Castille was again frustrated with the administration Tuesday afternoon after learning from fellow council members (Castille could not make the meeting) that Robideaux failed to bring any new solutions to the meeting earlier that day.

“If he wants us to handle it, he just as soon resign his position and let us do it,” Castille says.