Any politicians who promise they can fix our roads, drainage and public buildings with the money that’s already in the budget are ignoring the elephant in this election: Lafayette has a billion dollar infrastructure deficit.
By infrastructure deficit, I mean the cost to properly maintain and improve roads, drainage and public buildings relative to the budget Lafayette Consolidated Government has to work with.
Years of kicking the infrastructure can down the road has caught up with us, and at the worst time. Our roads are riddled with potholes. Our drainage system is clogged and woefully inadequate to handle the increasing intensity of rain events. And our public buildings are crumbling and need to be replaced.
But the unfortunate reality is that Lafayette Consolidated Government doesn’t have enough money to fix all of these problems. The best way to grasp the depth of the hole is to take a closer look at just how big our community’s infrastructure deficit is.
LCG has an existing backlog of $93 million worth of roadwork — $53 million in unincorporated Lafayette and $40 million in the city of Lafayette — but only $6.5 million in the budget each year to tackle it — $2.5 million in unincorporated areas and $4 million in the city.
But the infrastructure deficit for roads is actually much greater when you consider the total cost of ownership of roads. By “total cost of ownership” I mean how much money it would take to properly maintain our roads and replace them as needed. Think of it as the amount of money we need to have good roads.
The math for this is simple. LCG is responsible for about 1,000 miles of road. While the cost to maintain an asphalt road can vary based on where it’s located, a good average is $5,000 per mile per year to properly maintain roads, or $150 million over the next 30 years. For an average mile of two lane urban asphalt road, it takes about $500,000 to repave it, which should be done every 30 years at a cost of $500 million.
That means the total cost of ownership to maintain and repave our existing roads over the next 30 years is at least $650 million. I say “at least” because some of Lafayette’s roads are three or four lanes wide, and some two-lane roads are getting widened.
And that’s not all, because the roads budget is also supposed to pay for sidewalks and bridges too. If you walk anywhere around here it’s hard to ignore the deplorable state of our sidewalks. And LCG’s Public Works Department has already identified $40 million of bridge repairs that are needed. When you factor in these existing deficits along with the added cost of maintaining bridges and sidewalks in the years ahead, we can conservatively raise the total cost of ownership of our road infrastructure over the next 30 years to at least $750 million.
If we spread that cost over those 30 years, that means LCG should be budgeting at least $25 million each year to do this work, and that’s without factoring in the cost of inflation or the cost of interest if bonds are sold to get any of this work done faster. It also doesn’t account for any money to widen existing roads or build new ones. This is just to maintain our existing roads, bridges and sidewalks.
Meanwhile, LCG’s property taxes dedicated to roads only generate $11 million per year: $10 million from the parish tax and $1 million from the city tax.
That means LCG collects less than half the dedicated tax revenue needed to take care of our roads. Spread over the next 30 years, that represents an infrastructure deficit of more than $420 million.
Drainage, drainage, drainage. The infrastructure crisis that’s garnered the most attention the last couple of years is our drainage system. It’s also the problem that has seen the most money thrown at it recently.
Rededications and fund transfers from the parish health unit and the library and road projects like South City Parkway and the Louisiana Avenue extension have created almost $100 million in new money for drainage. But even that is a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.
Last year, the parish drainage millage collected about $7.5 million in property taxes. But that amount was so inadequate that public works was able to identify a backlog of $29 million worth of deferred maintenance that was required on just the worst 100 miles of coulees. The drainage millage is set to collect closer to $10 million this year with the additional money rededicated from the parish health unit, but that’s still not nearly enough.
We actually don’t even know how much it would cost to properly maintain all of our existing drainage infrastructure. If you talk to Public Works Director Mark Dubroc, he’ll admit that his department hasn’t had the budget or manpower to index the current state of all 890 miles of coulees, 1,400 miles of roadside ditches, and 300 miles of subsurface drains. Nor have they been able to start a serious analysis of just how much it will cost to “fix drainage,” as many politicians are promising to do.
A report on drainage by LCG suggested that “fixing drainage” would cost $500-$750 million. But that estimate only included the cost of returning existing coulees and channels to their designed capacity and marginally improving key areas.
If we wanted to actually “fix drainage” in a way that improved our community’s odds of being able to survive increasingly severe rain events and stormwater runoff, the price tag rises even further, potentially into the billions of dollars, as Dubroc described at a recent council meeting.
So even with the $100 million that’s been redirected to drainage, LCG is still at least $400 million-$650 million short, and the deficit may be much, much greater than that.
Add that to roads and we’re at a minimum infrastructure deficit of $820 million-$1.07 billion and rising.
Lafayette owns dozens of properties and yet there’s not enough money in the budget to maintain or replace them.
Take the parish jail, for example. It has a dedicated millage that collects about $4.5 million per year, but that hasn’t been enough. So we expanded the scope of the millage dedicated to the courthouse to include the jail, and there still isn’t enough money. While the courthouse fund currently carries a $5 million fund balance, it’s projected to eat through that in two years just to cover operating expenses.
So there’s effectively no money to make major repairs or improvements to the jail. That means there’s also effectively no money to make repairs or improvements to the parish courthouse either. Yet not only do both buildings need major repairs, but they will both need to be replaced sometime in the next 30 years, and that would cost tens of millions of dollars.
Right next to the jail and the courthouse is another public building in dire need of investment, the Buchanan Street garage. There’s no money available to make major repairs, which is why the Buchanan Street garage has been closed for a year with no progress. Estimates to repair it range from $5 million-$7 million and replacing it from $10 million-$16 million. But there’s simply no dedicated funding available to get this work done.
These are just some of the most notable public buildings we can’t afford to fix and already we’re up to an added infrastructure deficit that approaches $100 million, conservatively.
That brings our total infrastructure deficit up to a little over or a little under a billion dollars. And that’s without building any new roads or widening any existing ones, or expanding our drainage infrastructure, or constructing any new buildings. That’s just to get by on roads without potholes, coulees that aren’t clogged, and public buildings that aren’t falling apart.
But they told me LCG has plenty of money
When it comes to already dedicated funding, they’re wrong. Where this conversation gets more complicated is when we look at general funds, capital funds, and tapping other dedicated funds to fill gaps.
General funds, in theory, are pools of money that can be spent on anything government can legally spend money on. Unfortunately, the parish general fund has no money available. The city general fund only has about $19 million available of its $39 million fund balance, and that cushion is shrinking. Next year’s budget requires using $5 million of the city’s general fund balance to balance the books.
Capital funds are pools of money dedicated to capital projects. The city has a capital fund with about $25 million available every year generated by local sales tax to pay for all sorts of capital needs, from buildings to vehicles and equipment. But the vast majority of this billion dollars plus of infrastructure deficit is on the parish side of LCG’s ledger. And the parish has no capital fund. Plus the city has other needs for its capital fund, so it’s not like we can just claim all of that money to start reducing our infrastructure deficit without realizing consequences elsewhere in the operations of our local government.
Dedicated funds are pools of money dedicated to specific purposes. Just like the millages dedicated to roads and drainage, there are a host of other property taxes dedicated to various government functions. Many argue for right-sizing the budget by way of shifting money around, rededicating some money from “low priority” functions to “essential” functions like infrastructure. But that’s easier said than done when you look at what those other millages are dedicated to. Here’s the total list of millages that aren’t already dedicated to roads, drainage or public safety and how much money they collected last year:
|Health Unit/Mosquito and Animal Control||$8.1 million|
|Teche Vermilion||$3.2 million|
|Parks and Recreation (city only)||$3 million|
|Bayou Vermilion District||$2.1 million|
Zero out each of these funds and move their dollars into infrastructure and theoretically you free up $37.6 million per year, enough to cover the $33 million in annual infrastructure expenses necessary to pay down that $1 billion deficit. Such an extreme approach, and really anything near it, would come with serious consequences.
Like shutting down the parish health unit, which serves as the front line for combating infectious diseases, particularly among our most vulnerable populations. And stopping efforts to control mosquitoes. And closing the animal shelter. And ending efforts to grow our economy. And giving up on making the Vermilion River safe and navigable. And shuttering libraries or public parks.
Simply put: There is no money that’s readily available to lower our infrastructure deficit without making significant sacrifices.
Where does that leave us?
When you’re in a billion dollar plus hole, it’s not surprising that there are no easy options available.
We can either raise taxes or other revenues. Or we can cut government services that many would argue are essential to having a vibrant community. Or we can stay in this hole and accept all of its potholes, and flooding and crumbling buildings.
These are our options, no matter what promises a politician’s making to garner your vote. And these are the decisions that whoever’s in charge come January will have to sort through.
Will we as a community continue to kick the infrastructure can down a pockmarked, flooded road, or will we stand up to these challenges and focus on finding real solutions to the real problems we face?