What does a parish government do, anyway?

The Lafayette Parish government building in Downtown Lafayette. Photo by Allison DeHart

When the new slate of elected officials takes office in January, it will be the first time in Lafayette in more than 20 years that the city and parish will have separate councils. One of the signature rallying cries from the Fix the Charter movement was that the city of Lafayette deserved its own governing council, granting it the same autonomy enjoyed by the other parish municipalities. Like the city, the parish also suffered without its own governing body, routinely playing backup as the city’s business held the spotlight on a shared stage. 

Twenty-seven years after consolidation was approved, what once was joined has now been put asunder by the voters, at least partially. With the parish playing second-fiddle for so long, the separation of the councils provides an opportunity for Lafayette to consider the role of parish government moving forward. The worry that led many to support consolidation initially — that annexations would leave nothing for a parish government to actually govern — leads to an impoverished view of the potential leadership role a parish council can play.

Consolidation was originally championed by community leaders, especially the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, who sought to streamline government functions to encourage business growth. During the oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, commercial and residential expansion was annexed by the city to the extent that parish leaders feared there would be little left to govern. Because Lafayette Parish is geographically compact, as city boundaries expanded, the unincorporated areas dwindled considerably. Proponents pitched the merger of the parish and the city as a way to cut redundancies and make expansion a cooperative endeavor.  

Over the years, however, parish needs were eclipsed, in part, because of the structure of consolidated government. The city and parish have been like longtime roommates who have elaborate contracts and chore schedules to make the relationship work. They operated jointly but never fully consolidated, with parish needs generally kicked to the curb. The separation of the councils offers the opportunity to clearly define each one’s role. The newly elected parish council, in particular, could serve as a broker between the municipalities, offering each a seat at the table and building trust. 

Beyond collecting taxes from the unincorporated parts of Lafayette, what does a parish government do? Historically, parish governments have been primarily responsible for issues related to safety and health. Services extended from building and maintaining infrastructures like roads, bridges and drainage systems, overseeing emergency preparedness, and tending to public health issues from animal services, overseeing public health clinics and providing public recreation facilities. Neither mosquitoes nor flood waters respect municipal boundaries, and for that reason, they’re under the purview of the parish. In short, parish governments generally oversee points of connection. 

The primary point of connection that will define the role of the new parish council is drainage. Recent flooding events have crystallized the need for parish-level emergency planning and storm water control. Though some efforts at regional planning have commenced since 2016, tensions remain high among those who’ve experienced flooding. The frustrated exchanges between Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter and Lafayette Consolidated Government over maintenance of the Anslem Coulee are emblematic of the vexation felt by parish leaders and residents alike. All fingers may now point toward the parish council as residents await answers about drainage.

Safety infrastructure, another historical point of oversight for parish government, will be closely watched. The sheriff has already asked for LCG to cover the cost of security guards at the parish courthouse as well as for additional operating costs for the parish jail. Meanwhile, the courthouse itself is long overdue for maintenance repairs and safety updates. A dedicated tax for the jail and courthouse complex has not kept up with increasing costs. In November 2018, Lafayette voters rejected proposed new dedicated courthouse and jail taxes, leaving the parish council to explore options moving forward.

Recreation will also be an area of consideration for the parish council. In November 2017, voters approved a rededication of part of the public health tax to drainage with an addition $500,000 to the CREATE program, aimed at growing the cultural economy. Another recreation proposition will appear on the Oct. 12 ballot, asking voters to approve moving $2 million in dedicated taxes from the library to recreation, paired with a proposal to transfer $8 million for drainage. Though the parish maintains several parks throughout Lafayette — funded by a city millage, the lone revenue source for decades — municipalities have taken the lead on investing in large scale recreation and athletic complexes. Broussard and Youngsville have seen significant use at their new developments. The parish council may exercise the controlling vote over whether to invest resources into growing cultural and recreational offerings or leave that opportunity to the municipalities.  

All of these projects require some funding source, and the parish is short on funds. The city general fund and parish general fund are budgeted separately, and a Byzantine set of cost-sharing formulas is used to divvy up the check at the end of each meal. Now that the city and parish councils will be meeting at separate tables, all eyes will be on the budget, which the council will tackle in August — its last budget process as a consolidated group. 

The parish council will take office cash-strapped with heightened pressure and expectations. Voters in recent elections have rejected several tax propositions that would have injected the parish budget with additional funds. Candidates seeking office on the parish council will, no doubt, be grilled on their plans for fixing the budget gaps. Without gaining the public’s trust, there’s little chance of getting new revenues passed. But with little money at its disposal, the parish might want to spend its one remaining resource — time — building metaphorical bridges with other parish and municipal leaders to generate the good will necessary to collaborate going forward.