COLUMN: Cutting quality of life services will backfire, hurting Lafayette’s economy for years to come

Large piggy bank broken with a piece laying on a person
Illustration by Peter DeHart

With Lafayette fighting for its economic future, Mayor-President Josh Guillory is advocating for budget cuts that will hurt the city’s economic competitiveness by threatening Lafayette’s quality of life.

Every quality of life program the city subsidizes is at risk in Guillory’s proposed budget. The Lafayette Science Museum. Ten recreation centers. The Heymann Center. The Nature Station. The Acadiana Center for the Arts. Three Senior Centers. Swimming, tennis and other athletics. Local arts organizations. Basically everything. Except golf. 

All of these face cuts of 50% or higher to the subsidies they receive from the city. Most face significant staffing reductions. And some will have to implement new operating models without solid plans in place based on partnerships that have not yet been clearly defined or secured.

The mayor-president is trying to keep a campaign promise. Guillory campaigned on the promise of prioritizing government spending on essential services. So it’s no surprise he’s looking to cut spending on what he considers to be less essential services. And in the midst of an economic crisis that threatens future tax collections, it’s understandable why he felt emboldened to cut deep.

But despite Guillory’s optimistic belief that through his leadership local government will be able to do more with less, his plans have a high potential of the city simply doing less with less. And that’s a problem because at a time when Lafayette should be doing everything it can to be as attractive as possible to people so that they stay — or relocate — here, Guillory’s proposed budget cuts threaten to move us in the wrong direction.

Throwing quality of life to the wind

Perhaps the best example of the threat posed by Guillory’s proposed budget cuts and public-private partnerships is what he wants to do with the Lafayette Science Museum. He’s asking the city to cut its subsidy from $1 million to less than $400,000 and eliminate all its staff but one. He then wants to hand the keys to the Lafayette Science Museum Foundation and make it responsible for raising the funds necessary to offset the loss of more than half of the city’s subsidy and for managing the museum’s million-dollar-plus operations.

That’s a big ask of a foundation that currently consists of a five-member volunteer board whose primary activity is organizing a dozen outdoor lunch events each year that generates less than $40,000 in revenue with less than $20,000 in assets. Some of these board members spoke at a recent budget hearing to warn that they do not have a plan in place to handle the hot potato Guillory wants to throw them. They say it will take them at least five years to develop the fundraising and operational capacity to manage the museum. And they can’t guarantee they’ll ever be able to replace what will be lost if the city cuts the museum’s subsidy. At last night’s council meeting, the foundation’s board president specifically asked the City Council to restore the museum’s subsidy in full.

Could Guillory’s plan work? Sure. If enough rich people value what this museum brings to our community — especially our children — anything’s possible. Raise a $20 million endowment and the museum could continue operating without missing a beat. But short of that, soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations per year from Lafayette’s philanthropic community wouldn’t be easy, even in a good year. And 2020 is decidedly not a good year, with an economy that’s as bad as it’s ever been and charitable giving falling while charitable needs rise. 

If the City Council approves Guillory’s deal, whenever the museum is able to reopen, it’ll most likely be operating as a shell of its former self. Exhibits will stay the same longer, if they’re even able to change at all. Educational opportunities for students to do field trips and hands-on learning will be curtailed, if not eliminated entirely. The doors to the museum may be open, but there won’t be the staff or the budget for the programming that makes a science museum a science museum.

Lafayette’s 10 recreation centers face a similar fate, where the doors may stay open but they’ll be a whole lot emptier inside. Guillory initially said he’d close four centers. Then he announced a plan to find partners to operate them and issued an RFP. Then he announced that all centers would remain open, but with significantly reduced budgets and staff. He’s proposing that the city cut the centers’ operating budget from $3 million to less than $1 million and permanently reduce their staffing by half. If the City Council approves his plan, the city will have to live with a situation where there won’t be the staff or budget for the programming that makes a recreation center a recreation center.

With every one of these proposed cuts or staffing reductions or partnership agreements, the fate of services essential to the city of Lafayette’s quality of life are being put at grave risk.

Why quality of life is so important to economic competitiveness

If you, personally, don’t use any of these services, it may not seem like that big of a deal for them to be cut or even put at risk of going away entirely. But these are issues that affect everyone, especially at a time of tremendous economic uncertainty.

The competition is fierce. The city of Lafayette competes with every other city in Louisiana and across the U.S. for talent. If you’re someone who believes government should run like a business, then surely you also believe the primary business government is in is building and maintaining infrastructure and services that make people want to stay here and move here rather than live somewhere else.

Of course roads and drainage and public safety are key parts of that equation, but they’re not the only services that are essential to enabling the kind of quality of life that people who want to live in or near cities prioritize. That’s especially true for young families who want to live in cities that offer a variety of amenities and activities for them to enjoy with their children.

Every cut hurts. With every cut we make to services like parks and museums and arts and culture, we’re reducing our city’s attractiveness as a place to live and raise a family. And that affects everyone, even those who don’t use these services. Because the less competitive we are for attracting and retaining talent, the less vibrant our economy will be, which will ultimately lead to less commerce, and fewer job opportunities, and falling tax revenue that will result in ever-worsening infrastructure.

And this dynamic isn’t just about individuals but also companies as they consider where to relocate or grow their operations. If we want Lafayette to be as competitive as possible, we have to focus on offering more opportunities to improve quality of life, not less. Because Lafayette’s quality of life is essential to its economic competitiveness.

There is a better way to cut budgets for essential services

Last month, I opined about how the city of Lafayette can afford to continue to subsidize these quality of life services if it wants to. Guillory’s argument that these cuts have to be made because the city can no longer afford to subsidize these services simply isn’t true.

Over the past couple of weeks, the uncertainty inherent in Lafayette’s currently economic situation has only come into sharper focus. Last week we learned that total assessed property values in the city dropped 4.4% this year, yet retail sales in the city in June were actually higher this year than last year. At this point, the truth is that no one knows how good or how bad the economy and the city’s tax revenues are going to be next year. 

But what we do know is these services Guillory is proposing we cut are essential to our city’s quality of life, which is essential to our city’s economic competitiveness. So we need to be extremely careful about making any changes that risk our ability to attract and retain companies and talent.

To that end, there are some key principles we should keep in mind when considering if and when and how to make cuts to any of these services.

For starters, it’s irresponsible to make wholesale changes to the Parks and Recreation Department without qualified leadership in place. That department’s top two leaders both resigned over the last few months at least in part because they didn’t support Guillory’s push to cut the parks budget in half. Now we have our chief administrative officer, Cydra Wingertner, serving as a part-time “interim interim” director. 

It seems reckless to force all of these changes through at the same time. A better approach would be for the administration to propose one major change at a time so that the merits of each plan can be considered thoughtfully. As it stands today, Guillory is proposing the City Council radically restructure every part of the Parks and Recreation Department simultaneously, without any of his individual plans receiving any serious scrutiny. 

We shouldn’t be pushing assets like the Science Museum into the deep end without having a proper transition plan in place. I mean that both in terms of having a clearly defined agreement with an eager and qualified partner in place, as well as in terms of giving any new partnership some runway to get off the ground without risking the degradation or disruption of services. If as a community we come to agree that the museum needs to operate as a nonprofit vs. a government agency, we should have a proper plan with adequate funding locked down so we don’t risk losing this tremendously valuable asset to our Downtown and to our children’s educational opportunities.

I don’t think I can stress this enough. We should not be making any decisions as major as these cuts before we absolutely have to. There’s a fair chance that next year our economy recovers enough to stabilize local government finances, in which case these budget cuts may not even be necessary. That approach risks the economy taking a turn for the worse and these cuts needing to be made eventually, anyway, which could end up wasting money propping up services that we won’t be able to afford in the future. But making cuts of this size now risks needlessly threatening our city’s quality of life in pursuit of protecting a budget that’s not as bad as Guillory’s making it out to be.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t consider cutting these budgets. Our local government is facing tremendous financial uncertainty moving forward, which could result in us having no choice but to cut these services down the road. But right now we do have a choice, and the city can afford to be more deliberate in how it decides what to subsidize and how when it comes to maintaining services that are essential to many people’s quality of life.

The risks are just too big. The city of Lafayette can’t afford to risk its economic competitiveness in the rush to prove an elected official’s bonafides as a fiscal conservative. I believe the best course of action is to restore all the cuts Guillory is proposing to these services. And then force him to propose each cut individually over the next year once he has proper leadership in place to execute more developed plans so that the City Council can consider the costs and benefits of each in a more deliberate manner.