The Louisiana Board of Ethics has been trying to serve Brian Pope with formal notification of charges against him for about eight months now. On Thursday, the agency tracked him down in open court, apparently surprising the embattled city marshal who was appearing for a pre-trial hearing on 17 felony counts related to the ethics charges.
The gist: Lafayette architect Henry Boudreaux pleaded no-contest to theft over $25,000 in connection with allegations he bilked a Vermilion Parish couple during a massive renovation project to their historic home. No-contest has the same effect as a guilty plea.
Over a month ago, I went on KPEL to make the case that the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority should use the $30 million they have in combined cash to rebuild the Buchanan Street parking garage — currently set for redevelopment — instead of using public money to build new office space for the […]
It’s clear that there remains a lot of fog to lift on just what the hell is happening with local government next year. If you’re not a local political junkie, this explainer is for you.
The gist: Lafayette General Health announced the launch of a new $10 million innovation fund with investments from Acadian Companies, LHC Group, Ochsner and the Schumacher Family Foundation. The goal of this fund is to make investments in health care startups that can deliver good return and improve services for the system and its partners.
This is Healthcare Innovation Fund II. Was there a Healthcare Innovation Fund I? Yes, it deployed $3 million of LGH’s investment capital along with a match from the state into seven companies. All of those companies are still operating, and one of them, HealthLoop, was purchased by GetWell last year.
The investments have been successful. LGH is actively using products from five of the companies and working on the other two. The funds provide LGH an opportunity to earn income as an investor, supporting the organization as a whole, but also gives the system access to new concepts and innovations in health care.
Now LGH is taking its investing to a whole new level. For the new fund, LGH is increasing the size of its investment pool to $10 million and is bringing along some heavy hitter investment partners in Acadian, LHC, Ochsner and Schumacher.
“You’ve got a billion dollar not-for-profit health system in Lafayette General, a publicly traded home health company worth almost four billion dollars, one of the largest employee-owned company and ambulance service providers in the country, the guy who started one of the largest emergency room management companies in the country, and another $3 billion statewide not-for-profit health system in Ochsner,” says Cian Robinson, LGH’s executive director of innovation, research, and real estate investments. “So you’ve got some really smart people, subject matter experts, sitting around the table that are very quickly able to vet if this is good for their company,” he adds. “For me what that does is lessen risk, in particular execution risk.”
This fund will make investments ranging from $250,000 to $1 million per startup. LGH is looking for startups that offer solutions that drastically improve patient care/experience, accelerate the move toward value-based payments, innovate backend automation/productivity, or use data or deep learning to affect health care delivery.
But LGH and its investment partners aren’t just providing cash. “All of the folks mentioned as investors have agreed to open up their ecosystems,” says Robinson. “So the startups we invest in get to work with our CIOs and senior VPs to help them with product-market fit. And we help them with going into the market. It’s truly a sandbox for health care startups to thrive in.”
LGH is also looking for additional investors. Robinson says they’ve raised $6 million of the fund’s $10 million target, so there’s still $4 million available. Minimum buy in is $250,000 with the maximum investment being $2 million. LGH charges no management fees, as it’s covering the cost of operating the fund. Interested investors can reach Robinson at [email protected], as can startups seeking investment.
The system is also running a real estate fund that’s actively investing and in the coming months is planning to launch a $50 million Opportunity Zone Fund, which will primarily focus on developing real estate on LGH’s campuses located in Opportunity Zones, like the Oil Center.
Why this matters: LGH is Acadiana’s largest not-for-profit health system, so these funds are important just from the perspective of strengthening its bottom line while providing access to innovations that improve operations. But it’s also important because it’s an opportunity for Lafayette to leverage its economic strengths by combining the efforts of some of its most significant employers. And all this energy is focused on health care, one of Lafayette’s industries with the greatest potential to make up for the billions in GDP lost in the oil and gas industry.
The gist: A committee created to guide the transition to two councils met for the first time Tuesday, nine months after the vote creating the new government structure for Lafayette. Members of the 14-person body raised concerns about the complexity of the task and the tight window to get it done.
“This list is long; I’m not sure we can get to every single item,” transition committee chairman Jerry Luke LeBlanc warned of the group’s assignment in opening remarks following his election. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who convened the committee, set the tone for the meeting with an overview of the sticky points expected to vex future councils. The message was clear: This is going to be difficult to manage; let’s measure expectations of what can get done.
The body is advisory only. Whatever changes the committee recommends will serve as signposts. The body now has legal authority to define how the new councils work. The real burden of making the transition go smoothly falls on the new councils and the new mayor-president, who will take office in January.
Organizing the committee began in early June, while the legal challenge of the charter amendments was wrapping up. Robideaux distributed an outline of upcoming landmines on Monday. Discussion of forming some kind of transition team dates back to December of last year, shortly after the measure was passed.
“I would much rather that this body would have been created two years ago to discuss the upcoming charter that was proposed and given to the public to vote on,” District Attorney Keith Stutes, a committee member, said. “I see a long, uphill climb here.”
Can’t we all just get along? The amended charter provides little guidance on how to navigate potential disputes between the two councils, who are jointly responsible for the consolidated budget and must approve expenses for shared functions by separate majority votes. In the current budget, roughly $41 million in expenses are paid by combined parish and city revenues, with the city picking up around 80% of the tab. That cost-share — called cost allocation in the budget — is expected to be a thorny subject to tackle given the financial disparity between the city’s books and the parish’s.
Put simply, the city has money and the parish doesn’t. That means the new parish council will start life gasping for air, while city council members work to lock down their dollars.
Learning curves abound. The two new councils will take office in five months with plenty of fresh faces. At least four of the five members of the parish council will be brand new officials, with no prior council experience. There is one open seat on the new city council, with all four incumbent seats contested.
The committee itself has a steep learning curve. Most of the committee members, appointed by various parish organizations with stake on the council, are beginning the process with limited knowledge of how consolidated government currently works, particularly the labyrinthine budget processes used to navigate LCG’s various shared functions like public works, parks and recreation and the IT department.
Fixing the charter (again) would be a much more difficult political undertaking. Super majorities of both councils — four votes on each — are required to amend the charter any further. That level of difficulty could limit the options the committee proposes.
“I’m very concerned this is going to be a poison pill,” committee member and Clerk of Court Louis Perrett says of the high bar for amending the charter. Perret believes separating the mayor-president position and reforming how the separate councils approve joint budgets are necessary steps to make this work, changes that would require further charter amendments and another public vote. Mayor-president candidates Simone Champagne and Josh Guillory have voiced support for splitting up that office, as has council candidate Keith Kisbaugh.
What now? The current consolidated council is poised to adopt a budget for next year, which will cover 10 months of government by two councils. There had been discussion of creating a split budget to anticipate the new offices, but Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said Tuesday it may be an easier starting point for newly minted officials to work with a familiar budget. The adopted budget can be amended next year, as the two councils continue to build a plane in flight.
What to watch for: Meetings and ideas. The committee is expected to meet twice a month to work through the bullet points defined by Robideaux. Already, members floated fixes to foreseen quagmires, including more charter amendments and joint service agreements for shared functions. Regardless if these any of these ideas have merit, taking the committee’s advice will be the new government’s call.
I do my best to be realistic and confront the brutal facts, but I fail to see how The Current’s bad news cheerleading, particularly when the facts are incorrect, serves our community.
The gist: A resolution adopted unanimously by the City-Parish Council Tuesday formally urges action on dredging the Vermilion River. Council members and dredging advocates are now targeting funding and political help while the Army Corps of Engineers completes a dredging study.
There is immense political pressure to act. Facing repeated floods and sustained anxiety since August 2016, many residents say little has been done to protect them. Dredging advocates Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon have won the ears of officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, and have rallied flood victims and politicos alike to take comprehensive steps to manage regional waters. The tip of that spear is dredging the Vermilion River to remove years of accumulated.
“The Vermilion River is in a state of emergency,” Dixon told the council Tuesday night. An August navigation depth survey by the Corps of Engineers shows clogging throughout the river in Lafayette Parish, which Dixon believes is the culprit behind increasingly more common flood events.
LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river. Before the Corps will OK dredging, it’s studying the impact it would have locally and downriver in Vermilion Parish, where officials have asked for caution.
The Vermilion has reached flood stage five times in the last year. Indeed, over the last three decades, flood events along the Vermilion have increased dramatically, a phenomenon that correlates with population growth and accompanying development.
Climate and development appear to play key roles. Some evidence suggests that rain events are getting more intense. Researchers at LSU found that southern Louisiana is getting more so-called “convection showers” — high intensity downpours that burst over shorter intervals, often overwhelming drainage systems. Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish has added acres of rooftops and pavement that shed more water more quickly into drainage channels and, ultimately, the river.
Public Works Director Mark Dubroc attributes the increase in flood events to those rainfalls. Dubroc has questioned whether dredging will have the impact touted by advocates, arguing earlier this month that there is little evidence to support claims that dredging would have substantial benefit. More to the point, Dubroc is concerned that conclusions are getting ahead of proof. He doesn’t oppose dredging in and of itself, but he questions whether the benefit would be worth the cost.
“As public works director, I need substantive, identifiable benefit,” Dubroc tells me.
UL Lafayette researchers are modeling the effect of dredging the river. Responding to the public momentum, Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL, has used a detailed river model to calculate the efficacy of dredging.
UL’s model ran a scenario in which 20 miles of the Vermilion was dredged at varying depths and widths, including leveling the shoals at Coulee Mine and Rotary Point, identified by the Corps’ August survey. In a simulation of the August 2016 storms, the most extensive dredging modeled reduced water levels by at most half a foot and only at the Surrey Street bridge and Coulee Ile Des Cannes.
“The benefit is not universal in terms of the location. How much and where you dredge” is what really matters, Habib says. It remains an “open question,” he adds, whether more routine storms would see better results. A 1995 study by the Corps of Engineers suggests that dredging could see greater benefit in smaller storms, estimating a 2-foot reduction in peak water levels after 35 miles of excavation at a cost of around $30 million. Habib’s team will run the smaller storm scenarios through its Vermilion model, which includes more recent data and conditions.
Despite the unknowns, council members are chasing funding. Councilwoman Nanette Cook proposed a $5 million line item for dredging the river in an amendment to LCG’s upcoming budget. It’s not clear how much dredging that dollar amount would accomplish and where the money would come from. Elected officials are targeting state and federal pools, including a $1.2 billion flood control package authorized by Congress last year. Local dollars could be freed up by shifting funds from a handful of road projects and into stormwater diversion, as Mayor-President Joel Robideaux suggested in his introductory budget. An aide with Higgins’ office told the council earlier this month that the Corps estimated the cost of dredging hot spots — i.e. the shoals at Rotary Point and Coulee Mine — to be $5 million. Reached for comment Wednesday, a Corps spokesman could not identify the source of that figure by press time.
People are tired of studies, but studies are underway. LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river and will not receive one until after the Corps’ impact study is completed later this year. At issue is whether dredging upstream in Lafayette Parish could cause saltwater intrusion or loss of marshland in Vermilion Parish, among other complications.
What to watch for: The outcome of further study. It remains disputed among experts what effect dredging might have and what the cost-benefit would be. Come December, some unknowns will be resolved when the Corps completes its study.
Our politics has historically been more personal than partisan. This election cycle will put that trend to the test.
The gist: Mayoral aide Marcus Bruno did not violate the state ethics code, the Louisiana Board of Ethics determined, when he applied for and was awarded a small business loan from a local nonprofit in late 2016. Ethics found that the loan was not under the supervision or jurisdiction of the mayor’s office.
Lafayette’s real estate market is ice cold, and it may get worse before it gets better.
The gist: Dozens gathered at a private home in Lafayette’s Quail Hollow neighborhood to get answers from public officials on efforts to relieve flooding in what was one of the hardest hit areas in the floods of August 2016. Begging for projects that would make inches of difference, residents were told there was meaningfully little that could be done in the near term.
Work on a coulee lateral that drains part of the neighborhood has stalled. Two gas lines were discovered by work crews in the last few weeks, according to Public Works drainage coordinator Fred Trahan, pausing cleanup on the ditch that runs behind Cornelius Street, near Comeaux High School. Most of the homes on Cornelius flooded in 2016. Some have flooded again since.
LCG’s drainage project dashboard lists the project as under budget and on schedule to have been finished at the end of June. Residents have been clamoring for the work to be done on the lateral — designated Isaac Verot Coulee Lateral 7 — since 2016. Trahan said in an email to The Current that the project was at one time ahead of schedule, but weather delays and the discovery of the two gas lines interrupted work.
Quail Hollow and its sister neighborhoods aren’t designed to handle recent flooding events. Trahan noted the 40-year-old subdivisions were built long before developers were required to add detention facilities to capture stormwater and reduce runoff. Increasingly intensifying rains are overwhelming a system built for lighter rains. Public Works is considering a diversion project for the bowl-shaped basin, an intervention expected to be costly and long in the making.
“Can we do it? Yes. But it won’t solve the problem,” Trahan said, explaining that the backflows in 25-year storms would still topple into homes.
Cost could prohibit any real solution. Meanwhile, people are trapped in their homes. What interventions have been offered, many by frustrated residents, are unlikely to shave much more than an inch off of rising water levels during a big storm. Several homes have gone on the market since 2016, with no takers. Much of the neighborhood is now part of a 100-year flood zone, meaning at elevated risk, according to FEMA flood maps adopted in 2018. That wasn’t the case when many residents bought their homes years ago.
“One day, it may be cheaper to do buyouts,” Trahan told me.
The coulee behind Cornelius can’t handle the added volume of water shedding into it from widespread development and urbanization, UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland told me last year. Kinsland’s mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, and he surveyed the area following the 2016 floods. He’s studied the relationship between urbanization and increased flooding in Lafayette Parish. In Kinsland’s opinion, routine maintenance wouldn’t prevent flooding related to the collision of intensifying rains and proliferating pavement.
Officials promise that efforts are underway. Councilwoman Nanette Cook and State Rep. Stuart Bishop, who represent the neighborhoods at local and state levels, respectively, reiterated steps taken in their arenas of power. Cook reminded residents of a proposition on ballots this fall to divert $8 million in library funds to drainage and other capital projects, and noted she added a $5 million line item to LCG’s budget for spot dredging in the Vermilion River, a project generally believed to have limited, if any, impact on flooding in Quail Hollow. Bishop, for his part, promised to push the state department of transportation to clear out blockage under state bridges and pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move on the Vermilion.
“Obviously, we don’t want to leave, because we’re here fighting for our homes,” said Melanie Roy, a Cornelius Drive resident. Roy demanded that nearby retention ponds, which she says maintain a high water level for aesthetic purposes, be lowered ahead of named storms. Trahan conceded it was feasible but cautioned that it may not do much good.
“Can we try it?” Roy replied, exasperated and drawing applause from her fellow residents.
Why this matters: Stormwater management is a quagmire in the parish and a political lightning rod. Simply put, no two drainage problems are alike, and in a time of limited resources, competing concerns are inevitable. In some cases, authorities are throwing pennies at $10 problems. Meanwhile, residents are emotionally drained by years of flood anxiety and what they see as inaction.