Month: July 2019

Category: News + Notes

Councilwoman wants city trash contract canceled

The gist: Councilwoman Liz Hebert wants representatives from Republic Services to answer publicly for what she views as widespread problems plaguing garbage collection throughout the city and unincorporated parts of the parish. She’s requested an update from the garbage contractor at Tuesday’s council meeting and is looking into whether the contract can be canceled.

6 min read

“They are not delivering what they promised,” Hebert tells me, noting that some of her District 8 constituents have gone two to three weeks without garbage pickups. The councilwoman says she gets complaints from residents “every single day. I can’t tell you the last day I didn’t get a call or email.”

Hebert says a bigger issue for her district is that roughly half of the 26,000 residents she represents are scheduled for Friday pickups, and delays often mean they wait an entire weekend with garbage sitting outside. “It’s ridiculous,” she says.

District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque suggests missed Monday routes in his district could create problems throughout the week when Republic has to double up. “We have had nothing but complaints,” says Conque, who estimates he fields an average of one to two complaints a week but says LCG’s staff sometimes handles issues without involving him, noting that the pace of grumblings did accelerate after Tropical Storm Barry due to late storm debris collections.

It’s not just missed collections. Both council members say hydraulic fluid from Republic trucks and “leaking trash juice” are also ongoing issues (the contract allows LCG to inspect the trucks, but it’s not clear whether that’s happening), and Hebert says she’s been sent videos showing the company mixing recycling with regular trash. 

The chemicals the trucks deposit on streets can damage the asphalt, and Hebert notes at least one recent instance where Republic was forced to pay for a private street it damaged. While it’s LCG itself that collects money when the company is delinquent, charging Republic $25 a day for missed pickups (fines start on the second day), the trash contractor has even begun reimbursing residents, according to Hebert. “I have been making such a big deal about it, and the neighbors have been making such a big deal that they have gotten reimbursement,” she says.

Lafayette isn’t alone in its ongoing complaints about Republic, as Baton Rouge is also struggling with spotty service. In response to that dissatisfaction, the company last month laid out a plan to hire more workers, update its fleet and continue twice-a-week trash collection, The Advocate reported. 

Councilwoman Liz Hebert, second from right, is asking LCG’s legal department whether the trash contract with Republic Services can be canceled or non-performance.

Buyer’s remorse. Councilwoman Hebert has it. As a new councilwoman in 2016, she supported an amendment to the no-bid contract with Republic, a five-year extension to 2023 that at the time was worth $73.5 million. As part of those negotiations on a contract originally signed in 2008, Republic offered to take over curbside recycling for the current price the Recycling Foundation was charging — $2.40 per resident — on a different contract that was about to expire. The lowest bid for curbside recycling collected under the Durel administration was $5.17 a month. It was a big selling point, both council members recall. 

“Yes, I supported it back then,” Hebert says, “but knowing what I know now, that’s why I’m fighting to get the contract canceled.”

It still isn’t crystal clear the extension was legal. After the AG’s office opined in March 2018 that the extension violated state law, citing a 10-year limit on such non-exclusive franchise contracts, LCG’s attorneys in May 2018 filed a petition for declaratory judgment, asking the 15th Judicial Court to weigh in on the legality of the extension. In January, without ever scheduling a hearing, District Judge Ed Broussard signed off on a joint motion for consent judgment filed by LCG and Republic — in essence agreeing with the two parties’ own assertion that the contract was not subject to the time limitations the AG cited, court records show.

Hebert tells me she plans to ask LCG’s legal department to research whether Republic is in violation of the terms of its contract. According to LCG Environmental Codes Supervisor Russell Bourg, the Arizona-based company has only once been cited for falling below its average monthly service effectiveness rate of 99.75 percent, which is calculated quarterly per terms spelled out in the contract. Republic was fined $75,000 during last year’s first quarter, in addition to other fines it racked up — blaming problems in part on employees calling in with the “Super Bowl flu.” 

“I prepared the paperwork for [the $75,000 fine]; I don’t know if it’s been collected,” Bourg tells me, noting he turned the paperwork over to the city-parish attorney’s office. Bourg referred questions about daily fines assessed to Republic in 2018 and 2019 to Ariel Fischer in the mayor’s office. Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for those tallies. 

It’s not hard to make the case that Lafayette is paying too much and getting too little. Should Hebert get her way, there are some indications LCG could get a better price by putting the contract out for bid.

Residents in the city and unincorporated areas are paying $30.94 a month, a price that includes once-a-week trash and yard pickup ($24.37), curbside recycling ($2.63) and environmental services ($3.94). The cost of track pickup has doubled since 2000, when the city had a twice-a-week pickups and the parish once a week.

Residents in the city of Carencro, which put its curbside garbage and recycling contract out for bid last year, pay Houma-based Pelican Waste & Debris $19.30, almost $7 less than they were paying before.

Sources with knowledge of Republic’s Lafayette office say the company has been plagued by an extraordinary number of turnovers in recent months, and they believe that is at least partially to blame for the inconsistent service. 

Republic Services General Manager Steve Sytsma, who runs the local operations, did not respond to an email and text message seeking comment for this story.

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Category: News + Notes

FCC action threatens future of AOC Community Media

The gist: On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to change the way franchise fees work, threatening to eliminate up to two-thirds of AOC Community Media’s annual funding.

3 min read

Franchise fees are what cable companies pay to use the public’s rights of way. Typically cable companies pay 5% of their gross cable revenue to local franchising authorities. 

Franchise fees account for about two-thirds of the public access media organization’s annual budget, which is a hair under $900,000. The other third comes primarily from contracts it has with LCG to record and webcast council meetings and other events.

Changes would threaten that revenue for AOC. The changes will allow cable companies to count a variety of in-kind contributions against that 5% franchise fee, rather than pay the entire fee in cash. Contributions could include courtesy equipment, network capacity, channels, grants, sponsorships, specially created programming, local retail facilities, and free advertising, according to the The Internet and Television Association, a trade organization that represents cable companies and supports the new rules.

Full disclosure: AOC Community serves as The Current’s fiscal sponsor for tax-exempt contributions. 

The budgets of the city and parish of Lafayette could also take a haircut. Only one-third of the franchise fee revenue goes to AOC, with the rest split between the city and parish general funds. In other words, LCG could lose $1.8 million in general fund revenues. 

Th next step will likely be the courts. Local public access channels and city officials have already started to band together in opposition, with more than 200 mayors voting in opposition of these new rules. Assuming it passes, it will almost certainly be challenged in court.

If this rule survives legal challenge, AOC could be significantly diminished. According to AOC Executive Director Ed Bowie, some version of his organization should be able to continue operations, but it will obviously have to be at a reduced scale if it loses two-thirds of its revenue.

The legal process could take a year or two to work through the courts. So even if this rule passes the FCC, it should be a while before its impacts are felt.

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Category: News + Notes

LUS shrinks revenue forecasts to reflect diminishing demand

The gist: Flattening energy demand has taken a toll on LUS sales. While electric revenues are  growing, they are falling short of budgeted projections each year. For the upcoming fiscal year, LUS cut $10 million from last year’s projected revenue, a belt-tightening figure when compared to historic estimates. 

4 min read

Electrical demand has been sluggish. And that accounts for most of the diminished outlook. In the proposed 2019/2020 budget, LUS projects $101 million in base rate revenue — retail sales, excluding fuel — on $253 million in revenues for the entire utilities system, including wastewater and water services. This year’s adopted budget, reflecting fiscal year 2019, projected $108 million in electric sales on $241 million in total utilities operating revenue. 

LUS revenues missed on budget projections each of the last three years. While electric sales have increased year-over-year, they’ve fallen as much as $10 million short of estimated revenues in each of the last three budgets. To an extent, next year’s diminished projections hew closer to the system’s actual performance but still reflect an expectation of growth, albeit slower: 

YearTotal ProjectedTotal ActualElec. Sales Proj.Elec. Sales Act.
2016$240 million$220 million$92 million$84 million
2017 $244 million$225 million$97 million$87 million
2018$246 million$232 million$107 million$95 million
2019*$253 millionn/a$108 millionn/a
2020*$241 millionn/a$101 millionn/a

*Only projected revenues are available.

Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says the trend is concerning, but notes the system is still adding customers. But these new customers, he says, are using less energy per person. That means diminishing returns as LUS grows its customer base through city annexations, franchise agreements with Broussard and Youngsville, and an acquisition deal with Slemco. 

“We’re adding customers, but they’re more efficient customers,” Stewart tells me. 

LUS raised electric rates in 2016. A 9% total increase was phased in over the last few years to pay for a $240 million bond package that included $120 million for a new natural gas power generator. The plan was scuttled after public pushback, and LUS reduced its bond request to $70 million, throwing out plans for the new generator. The rate increases have remained in place. LUS moved forward with work on new wastewater treatment facilities, sewer line upgrades in the urban core, and has submitted work orders to outfit 18,000 city lights with LEDs, a $7 million project. 

Energy efficient appliances and consumer habits have taken a bite out of power company revenues nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that trend to continue, projecting flattened electricity demand decades into the foreseeable future 

If you can’t sell more of it, what do you do? Stewart tells me LUS is exploring EV charging as a potential revenue stream. Air conditioners, he says, were the 20th century innovation that drove electric revenues. Some 10 million electric vehicles are expected to hit American streets by 2025, offering one consumer sector that could increase electric demand and, in turn, drive sales for power companies. 

Why this matters: LUS has major upgrades in the not-so-distant future. Remember that whole business with Jim Bernhard? Paying for those upgrades was a big part of his sales pitch. Most of Lafayette’s power capacity comes from a coal plant, which is routinely on the cusp of regulatory shutdown, depending on who occupies the White House. (Most of the time, LUS buys the power you use in your house from a grid market.) Outside of the looming need for investing in power generation, the system is a capital-intensive enterprise. Historically, the electric system has subsidized water and wastewater operation. A budget crunch on the electric side presents a major challenge for the system’s long-term financial health and could even put its contribution to the city’s budget, roughly $23 million every year, at risk.

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Category: News + Notes

The Vermilion River was lowered ahead of Barry. It looks like that worked.

The gist: Pumps that feed fresh water into the Vermilion River were stopped days ahead of Tropical Storm Barry’s landfall. Combined with a lucky north wind, ad hoc flood control efforts lowered the Vermilion by more than a foot, potentially avoiding major flood damage along the bayou. 

3 min read

The river sat 18” lower than normal when the rains started. Consequently, the river’s crest — the flood height, essentially — was close to 2 feet lower than projected ahead of the storm. You can thank the wind and the folks at the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District for that, according to regional officials and local advocates. Harold Schoeffler, a Sierra Club advocate who has pushed regional politicos to get the Vermilion River dredged, lobbied the freshwater district to step in and stop the pumps. On July 8, the district followed through, a step it normally takes ahead of major storms, but not with this much forewarning.

“It wasn’t something we haven’t always done in the past,” Teche-Vermilion Executive Director Donald Sagrera tells me. “It’s just that this time we had the warning.” 

It’s tough to say how much damage was prevented. Flooding is localized and hydrology can be complicated. Sagrera gives much more credit to the wind than the intervention, but Acadiana Planning Commission Chairman and St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot, who had a hand in authorizing the move, says stopping the pumps likely made a big difference for homes along the bayou. 

“The stages would have been higher,” Fontenot says of conditions if the freshwater district had not moved. “I think overall the elevations in the system would have been higher. As much as a foot. That could have impacted who knows how many homes and how much property damage.”  

What difference does a foot make? If you’re along the river, a lot. It only takes a couple of inches to ruin a home. And to be sure, homes still flooded in areas around Lafayette Parish. Whether dredging the Vermilion, thereby lowering the river long term, is the right solution is a question Fontenot believes ought to be studied. Widening the channel could have unintended consequences that worsen flooding in other areas. “It’s a lot more complicated,” Fontenot tells me. 

Flooding here and flooding there. How to manage stormwater will vary by address. While lowering the Vermilion impacts the water level of upland coulees and ditches, it’s not a slam dunk that fixing the Vermilion will save homes that flood from overtopped coulees. There’s even some question whether dredging the Vermilion would prevent flooding whatsoever, given the sheer volume of water entering drainage systems from intensifying rainfall and development runoff. 

“There’s no the drainage problem. There are several,” UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland tells me. Kinsland has studied the Vermilion for years, authoring a paper on the impact of urbanization. Kinsland calls the preventative measures taken by the fresh water district a “no-brainer,” but warns against angling for a singular solution. “There is no silver bullet,” he says. 

Why this matters. Stormwater management is everything in Lafayette now, and we’re facing down an election season. While we’ve begun to address the problem regionally, the anxieties created by the floods of 2016 reopen with each looming storm. How to fix the problem will frame much of this year’s political debates, and tackling the Vermilion is a big part of that discussion.  

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