Splitting the council has raised the stakes on Lafayette’s deteriorating politics

Illustration by makemade

The rationale behind splitting the City-Parish Council in two was simple. The city of Lafayette would secure control over city dollars, and the rest of the parish outside of the city would get more say over parish dollars. 

But the reality of actually splitting one council into two is complicated, both by the nature of how consolidated government operates and by the deteriorating tenor of Lafayette’s political discourse. We’ve effectively taken a broken system and complicated it dramatically at a time of great uncertainty. 

Take the budget. Currently, the mayor-president only needs approval for the budget from five of the nine members of the City-Parish Council. The next mayor-president will have to get approval from three of five members on both the city and parish councils. 

Getting approval from six council members instead of five might not sound like that big of a deal, but there’s much more to navigate here than simply getting one more person to vote “yes,” especially given the political and financial realities Lafayette Consolidated Government faces.

For starters, the next mayor-president needs both councils’ approval on who pays what for departments and services shared between the city and parish. LCG currently uses more than two dozen different formulas vetted by outside consultants to allocate costs. Despite the complexity, historically this hasn’t been much of an issue as the city-parish council generally rubber stamped whatever the mayor-president proposed that was approved by the consultants.

But that was when we had a single council representing the shared interests of both the city and the parish. Next year we will have two councils representing the interests of the city and the parish separately, and these interests aren’t always the same. Because of the new arrangement, the separate councils will be forced to reconsider the fairness of how each cost is allocated, and that’s a tricky business, especially since some of the ways costs are allocated are, in fact, arguably unfair. 

For instance, the parish hasn’t had budget available to pay for equipment and other capital outlay. That means there’s city-owned equipment — like trucks for Public Works and computers for the IT department — being used to conduct parish business without the city necessarily getting compensated for it. The new city council is going to have to decide if that’s fair to the city and, if not, how much more the parish ought to pay.

Another factor that adds complexity is the fact that the city has roughly $500 million in revenue and more than 1,300 city-only employees, whereas the parish only has about $100 million in revenue and approximately 300 parish-only employees. That means the city has greater operational support requirements than the parish. So while the city might need things like sophisticated enterprise resource planning software, the parish could get by with a copy of QuickBooks. 

The way costs are currently allocated, the parish has to pay for 20% of the city’s Cadillac when all the parish really needs is a slightly used Ford Pinto.

While there is a science behind how to fairly allocate costs — that’s what consultants are for — there are elements of this process that have shifted based on the policies of a given mayor-president. For example, former Mayor-President Joey Durel favored population splits. Joel Robideaux’s approach emphasizes city and parish revenues. 

How costs are allocated in the future will have to run the gauntlet of getting two councils with competing interests, aspirations and resources to agree. Arguably, this should be top of mind for the transition committee formed to trail-blaze the new split council frontier. 

The level of political compromise required here would be tough in any environment, but the challenge ramps up significantly when you look at the current state of discourse in Lafayette’s politics. When politicians and the public can’t agree on the basics — like whether the parish is broke or has plenty of money, or whether an election to amend the charter was legitimate, or even who should be allowed to use public libraries — it’s hard to imagine how the negotiations required to resolve these issues will happen smoothly.

And that’s all before we get to the biggest challenge of all, namely that both the city and parish are facing significant financial constraints. 

The parish is effectively broke, with no discretionary capital available and not enough funds to pay for basic obligations. The parish has millions of dollars in unfunded liabilities needed to maintain public buildings and operate the parishwide criminal justice system, tens of millions of dollars needed to maintain roads and bridges, and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars needed to maintain and improve the parish drainage system.  

Meanwhile, the city’s finances are only better when compared to the parish, as the city is budgeted to burn through $6 million of its general fund balance just to cover operating costs next year. While it’s still slated to carry a $35 million general fund balance, tapping into your savings to pay bills is simply unsustainable.

So neither the city nor the parish can really afford to pay any more than it already is for its share of the cost of LCG’s operations. Yet it’s pretty much a guarantee that as we work through this process of re-examining cost allocations, we’ll find that overall the parish hasn’t been paying its fair share.

What happens then? The parish already doesn’t have enough money to perform its basic functions. If the city council plays hardball in protecting the interests of city taxpayers to ensure that the parish is paying its fair share, it could literally bankrupt parish government. 

Fairness in cost allocation isn’t the only potentially contentious area of the budget to consider, as there’s also the matter of what happens to high-profile projects that cross the line between city and parish interests, now that control of city and parish dollars have been split. 

For example, what if next year’s parish council decides it doesn’t want to fund a new library in the city of Lafayette on the Northside? Or what if next year’s city council decides it doesn’t want to use city dollars to extend Louisiana Avenue into unincorporated Lafayette or transfer city dollars from the South City Parkway extension to drainage projects that could include work outside of the city?

These are just some of the parochial conflicts that have already started spilling out into the open regardless of the council split. And much of this stems out of a palpable frustration from all sides that LCG has failed to meet their needs. As a result, trust in local government seems like it’s at an all-time low, as is our capacity for nurturing compromise between the competing interests LCG represents.

And to heighten these tensions even further, the new charter gives both the city and parish council a nuclear option to kill the budget.

That’s because there isn’t a city budget, a parish budget, and a shared budget for LCG. There’s a single consolidated budget that now two councils must approve. In terms of political warfare, if three city council members or three parish council members don’t like any aspect of the budget, they can effectively veto it.

Put another way, in theory, one council could vote unanimously to approve the budget, and the other could tank it with just three votes. So a budget could fail despite garnering seven votes in favor of it.

If three members on either council are willing to play hardball to get their way, they now have the power to derail the budget. Of course this cuts both ways: The new power dynamic between the councils come budget season is mutually assured destruction.

Hopefully, we’ll never reach the point where budget debates get so contentious as to cause either council to invoke this option. But we can’t ignore the fact that there’s a perfect storm brewing. And if it does, there’s no clear “mechanism,” as Robideaux says, to resolve it.

Of course, there are ways we could shift this dynamic. We could resolve this situation by following the path of splitting the budget and revisit deconsolidating altogether. There appears to be some appetite for that option among candidates for council and mayor-president. 

Such changes would require amending the charter again, however. And here we face a familiar problem, namely that there’s also a nuclear option for a minority to kill any future charter amendments. 

That’s because for the current council to approve putting a charter amendment to a vote of the public it requires a supermajority, which means six of nine council members. Achieving that two-thirds majority on the new split councils will require “yes” votes from at least four members on each council.

Thus, any two members of the city council or any two members of the parish council have de facto veto power over new charter amendments. The math problem repeats itself. Eight out of 10 council members could support putting a charter amendment to a public vote, but the measure could still fail — five on one council, three on the other would not meet the required votes. 

As a result, the path to fixing the charter any further is a lot more challenging.  

Despite all this gnashing of teeth, there’s always a chance that cooler heads will prevail. But as we move forward with this transition from one council to two, we can’t ignore the ramifications of how the power dynamics in our new charter could play out. At a time when budgets are tight and our capacity for political compromise has decreased, the stakes have risen. We’ve now radically complicated how the sausage gets made, while equipping both councils with weapons that could bring the budget to its knees.