Here’s the deal. You’ve got two councils to elect now, Lafayette. That may not be at the forefront of your mind — Popeyes debuted a chicken sandwich, after all — but the change is a-coming. We’ve been out on the scene the last few weeks, and it’s clear that there remains a lot of fog to lift on just what the hell is happening with local government next year.
We’re not going to get into the politics of this here, i.e. whether it was a good idea or a bad idea. Think of this as a civics lesson, but one you can take in the privacy of your home (i.e. pantsless). Go ahead, run down to Popeye’s (or a local joint like WingFingers) and get you a chicken sandwich. That’ll help you settle in for what follows. If you’re not a local political junkie, this explainer is for you.
First things first: We used to have one council; now we’ll have two.
Before, if you live in the city of Lafayette, you had one council to complain about (or to). Starting next year, you’ll have two, one for the city and one for the parish. (If you live outside of city limits, you’ll still only have one.) That means your districts have changed, too.
You can find your parish council district and city council district here.
We’ve also got a running tab of who’s running in our Election Guide.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are two councils but one government. It’s sort of — and I mean sort of — like the federal government, which has two houses of congress (basically two giant councils) with one administration and an executive (POTUS) in charge of it.
Got it. So what will those new councils do?
Councils are primarily in charge of money. They get to decide how money is raised and spent. Generally speaking we call that “appropriation.” An easy way to think about it is, the parish council will handle parish appropriations and the city council will handle city appropriations.
For the most part, things divide cleanly. More than 80% of LCG’s $637 million operating budget is pretty clearly split between city and parish and tough to move around. About a third of that is LUS and LUS Fiber, which operate more or less like independent businesses and will be overseen by the city council; another third is dedicated funds that are linked to specific parish or city taxes that pay for services like the library system (parish) and the Lafayette Police Department (city).
Lafayette has a consolidated government. That means the functions of parish and city government are combined and currently overseen by one consolidated council. Parish and city budgets are reported separately each year in one consolidated budget and the one council decides how the money is spent. In the current adopted budget, the parish and city share about $41 million in general fund expenses. The city picks up about 80% of that tab. That looks like this:
Most of the time city dollars pay for city functions and parish dollars pay for parish functions. Where it gets tricky is that there are shared functions paid for by both parish dollars and city dollars, i.e. the $41 million shared slice of pie.
Once the council splits into two separate bodies, the parish council will be in charge of the parish slices and the city council will be in charge of city slices. They share power where the pieces of pie overlap, i.e. services paid for by the two general funds, which are pools of money that aren’t restricted to any specific use. That’s LCG’s checking account, if you will, the easy stuff to move around. That looks like this:
There’s an inherent tension here, as you can imagine. When the two councils get together next summer to plan their first joint budget, the size of the respective checking accounts will play a big factor in how things work.
Speaking of which..How is this going to work?
Good question. The simple answer is politics. The stuff in the middle can be difficult to separate neatly, especially when one side of the ledger is broke. Take Public Works, for instance. That department is in charge of trash contracts, drainage, striping and maintaining roads, putting up street lights in the city, and public maintenance in general. The parish and city write their own checks to build roads, bridges, buildings or drainage infrastructure. But one public works department, funded by both checkbooks, maintains them after they’re built.
So how do we decide which bank account — the city’s or the parish’s — pays for the salaries, computers, trucks, training, insurance plans for all those public works employees? That’s just one example of what the two councils will have to work out in approving the consolidated budget each year.
That seems challenging.
Well, yeah. That was one criticism thrown out by outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux. He said there was no “mechanism” to resolve that conflict, in a letter he wrote opposing the split, and he repeated that concern in framing up the work of a new transition committee tasked with drafting a roadmap for the new councils. Folks who supported splitting the council argued that it’s the mayor-president’s job to navigate those conflicts. Fun gig.
Let’s use a current example to illustrate it.
Mayor-President Joel Robideaux recently proposed using $46 million in city funds to pay for parishwide drainage. Right now, Robideaux will need the approval of one council to make that happen. And that council is currently made up of members who represent citizens from across the entire parish. If this were happening next year, Robideaux would need approval from a majority of both councils.
Arguably, it would be much easier for Robideaux to pass this plan by one council. Under two, it would be much more difficult. If the city council doesn’t like the idea of financing parishwide drainage projects, it could tank the budget and cause a gridlock. For folks who support the split, that’s exactly the point. That’s the theory anyway. How that works in practice is yet to be seen.
So there you have it. To review: One council became two. Now the two manage one government. The government has duties for both the parish and the city, and the two councils will have to argue with each other to figure out how to fund them.
How was that chicken sandwich?
Got a question about the new councils, the elections or LCG in general? We’d like to hear it!
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