As rec center fury grows, budget conflicts brew for Lafayette’s new government

Lafayette Parish Council members during a meeting in July Photo by Travis Gauthier

In the middle of a fuming controversy, Lafayette’s recently separated councils fell into the early makings of a constitutional impasse Tuesday, only months into the new form of government. Despite having little financial stake in the decision, the Parish Council blocked an effort to restore funding for four Northside rec centers over the loud objections of Black community members and pleas for discussion from City Council members. 

Refusing that discussion ignited more protests at Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s town hall Wednesday. Demonstrators, spread out and masked, chanted “Northside matters” and other familiar slogans like “no justice, no peace,” demanding the hearing they were denied Tuesday night. Black community leaders had also confronted the administration Monday at a meeting of the parks advisory commission, which was not consulted in Guillory’s decision to close the rec centers. Neither were council members, a fact that caused some heartburn as email inboxes piled up with citizen complaints. After police escorted protestors out, Guillory stuck to his guns on the rec centers, saying the decision was a budgetary necessity. 

City taxpayers cover more than 90% of the cost of parks and recreation and fund several parks outside city limits. Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s proposed budget eliminates the use of $3.7 million in general fund dollars to support the parks system, limiting all funding to a dedicated millage passed decades ago. As proposed, parish taxpayers would chip in $40,000 from the parish general fund. A parks property tax levied only in the city of Lafayette covers around $3 million. 

Still, the Parish Council has equal say in how that budget works. Joint services are controlled jointly by the city and parish council, according to the current legal interpretation of the amended charter. In offering a legal opinion to confused council members Tuesday, Assistant City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott ventured that it’s not shared funding that determines whether an agency is a shared service. In other words, the parish government could pay no money for parks and still have a say in how that department is operated. What matters is parks, by charter, is a parish function.

Lafayette’s city and parish councils are in their first year as separate entities after amendments to LCG’s home rule charter — essentially its constitution — split the previously combined council after a public vote in 2018. That effort was launched to give more autonomy to city taxpayers who bear the lion’s share of the cost of consolidated government and took effect this year when the new councils were seated. The city’s general fund is used as the operating fund for all of consolidated government, CFO Lorrie Toups noted on Tuesday, meaning that it’s saddled with the cash flow responsibility of parish purchases, too. 

The budget process that formally began this week is a long-expected test for the new form of government. And that test arrives in the middle of intense blowback on Guillory’s recent decision to unilaterally close four rec centers, all on Lafayette’s largely impoverished and predominantly Black Northside, and lay off 37 parks employees. Council members from both units agree that the road ahead is thorny but navigable, and say they’re working toward solutions as the political situation continues to worsen. 

“This is completely the reason why the voters approved a separate city council,” Parish Councilman Josh Carlson says, noting the parish has effectively “zero skin in the game.” Going into the meeting, both he and fellow parish councilman John Guilbeau questioned the parish’s role. But Escott’s opinion that shared responsibility is a function of shared service not funding bounced the ball into their court. From there, the more fiscally conservative parish council members viewed the ordinance as a non-starter. 

City council members had appealed for the “courtesy” of hearing the ordinance out. Councilman Glenn Lazard calmly called upon his Parish counterparts to allow the issue to come to the floor, even if they fundamentally disagreed with the ordinance or would vote it down. 

“My top priority is ensuring these kids have facilities to use beyond the remainder of this fiscal year. It’s not keeping 37 people employed,” Carlson says. For his part, Carlson wants to focus on a long-term solution, which he says was not covered in the ordinance as presented. Guilbeau views his top priority as balancing the budget; given the dire fiscal picture painted by the administration, he sees little choice in the matter. However, both he and Carlson say they are working on solutions that would keep rec centers open and functioning. 

Blocking the item altogether may have been a foregone conclusion, as parish council members have been more politically aligned with Guillory on budget matters, but it nevertheless sets a concerning precedent ahead of weeks of budget discussions. 

“I do think you will see more situations like this where that kind of question has to be addressed,” Guilbeau says.

“I have some concerns,” Lazard says of what’s to come in future budget discussion. “I have some very grave concerns about that going forward.” Lazard also takes issue with the procedure of Guillory’s cuts themselves, saying that the mayor-president, in effect, preempted the normal budget process. 

The episode exposes long-anticipated conflicts in the amended charter and deep flaws in consolidation generally. Both councils have structural incentives toward brinkmanship. Either can hold up the entire budget by way of voting down its adoption, which charter amendment proponents argued would have the effect of equitable compromise. Critics have held that roadblocks were just as likely, if not more likely, to happen. And stumbling into a bind on the rec centers shows how the arrangement can produce knots that are difficult to disentangle. 

Fix the Charter advocates say the conflict results from an inadequate transition to the new government. Kevin Blanchard, who was a key figure in the Fix the Charter movement, says the transition process convened by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux did not tackle the thornier issues anticipated. He disputes that the blockade demonstrates a systemic failure in the charter amendments themselves, arguing that the split has exposed exactly how unfair and unworkable consolidation had been all along. Further, he disputes how Escott interprets the charter to assign joint responsibilities without consideration of who’s cutting checks.

“We’re six months in. It’s a setback,” Blanchard says. “The bottom line is these types of suppressions of what the city wanted to do have been happening for the last 26 years. The conflict points are much more sharp now.” 

For the time being, the rec center issue is not over. While he held to his hard line in remarks Tuesday, Guillory says he will work to keep the rec centers open while pursuing private partners in a request for proposals process. The RFP was published Wednesday afternoon. That has not soothed resentment festering among many in the Black community, a constituency represented more heavily within city limits.