The parish can’t afford to fix drainage without more money

Waters reached 11 feet inside the Downtown underpass in June 2019. A woman safely escaped a car stalled at the bottom of the dip. Photo by Christiaan Mader

There’s a talking point circulating that the real barrier to fixing our drainage issues is politicians with screwed up priorities. If only they stopped wasting money on less important things, the thinking goes, we could finally solve Lafayette’s flooding.

But that perspective ignores the deeper truth: The parish simply can’t afford to fix our drainage system. At least not to the degree that’s required to have any chance of actually protecting our homes and businesses from future flooding. And certainly not without significant new revenue.

So how much money do we need to fix our drainage?

LCG’s Public Works department estimated a full drainage fix to cost between $500 million to $875 million, according to its drainage action plan. That figure would increase the capacity of major channels in the parishwide system, some 900 total miles. The current program underway, a $35 million initiative, covers a mere 100 miles of that network and tackles only deferred maintenance. It’s not adding capacity or improving the system, and that’s sorely needed. A safe guesstimate, for our purposes, puts a realistic price tag at $750 million.

Newsflash! The parish doesn’t have $750 million to spend on drainage

In fact, the parish general fund has zero dollars of unassigned fund balance. So there’s literally no extra money lying around ready to spend on a major drainage construction project.

Now that doesn’t mean the parish doesn’t have money. This fiscal year it’s slated to collect about $65.9 million in total tax revenue.

But $48 million of that is already allocated to priorities no one is likely to argue about, like the $23.3 million that’s already dedicated to drainage, roads and bridges. Or the $12.3 million dedicated to the juvenile detention center, the correctional center and the parish courthouse. Or the $12.4 million that goes into the parish general fund, but which is already spent on state-mandated expenses like the operations of the district attorney’s office and paying the parish’s share of the operations of LCG.

That leaves $17.9 million, most of which goes to fund the library, and the rest of which funds public health, animal control, mosquito control and CREATE.

Even if we were to shut down our library system, close the doors of the public health unit, shutter animal control, stop fighting the mosquitos and give up on CREATE, it would still take more than 40 years to collect enough revenue to cover the cost of fixing our drainage system, and that’s before you factor in the cost of interest on any bonds issued to get this construction work done sooner than the year 2059.

And this scenario only happens if we completely ignore the $97 million backlog of roads maintenance, deteriorating facilities at the parish courthouse and jail, or that parish government isn’t collecting enough tax revenue to maintain the inadequate drainage system we already have, let alone an expanded one.

No matter how much you shift politicians’ priorities, there just isn’t enough money generated by the parish’s existing tax revenue to pay to fix the drainage system.

Does anyone else see all the elephants in this room?

The simple reality of this situation is that the only way to fix the drainage system is to increase parish tax revenue.

Because not only is the parish unable to afford a $750 million drainage improvement plan with existing revenue, $750 million might not even be enough money to truly fix the problems.

Whether you believe in it or not, the climate is warming and as a result what used to be 100-year rain events are becoming more and more common. We’ve already had multiple events in just the last three years. Combined with decades of unchecked development, these extreme rain events are pushing more water into the system than incremental improvement can handle.

But putting those elephants aside, even if we assume $750 million is enough money to solve our problems, we’re still going to have to raise LCG’s parish property tax revenue by tens of millions of dollars per year if we want to even attempt to stop the parish from flooding without having to shut down our libraries, animal control, mosquito control and the public health unit.

Don’t trust false promises from our elected officials

Any politician or political gadfly who claims that all we need to stop the parish from flooding is to rejigger spending priorities either doesn’t understand the magnitude of the challenge we face, doesn’t realize the financial situation our parish is in, or doesn’t want to be honest with the public about the need to increase parish taxes because it’s a politically unpopular thing to say.

Heading into an election season, candidates are positioning drainage as a top priority, tapping into a common anxiety. But until they’re willing to admit what it’s going to take to solve these serious problems, you should take everything they say with a gigantic grain of salt.

We can’t afford to keep sticking million dollar bandaids on a dam that’s springing hundred million dollar leaks. And we can’t waste time arranging financial deck chairs. Because no matter what we do next, the water’s going to keep coming.