The gist: A conservative who ran on reining in government spending, Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory zeroed out millions in city spending in his first budget proposal since taking office. Unveiled Tuesday night, the budget calls for arts, recreation and community development programming to take the brunt of the austerity cuts, while what Guillory calls core government services remain largely intact.
The operating budget would be reduced by $30 million, with most cuts hitting the city’s general fund. The deep cuts are set against a predicted $23 million decline in revenues for the next fiscal year. Last year’s consolidated budget topped $630 million, including the utility system, which is roughly half of the budget all by itself. Guillory’s proposed budget, introduced to the councils Tuesday night, frames up a $600 million consolidated budget. Lafayette’s city general fund hovers around $100 million in appropriations annually.
Covid-19 figures prominently in the budget messaging, but many of the cuts target services Guillory views as secondary to the functions of government. Other savings were realized by ordinances passed to pause scheduled pay raises for the city police, fire and LCG employees. Those raises are a big part of the ongoing operating deficit Guillory inherited.
“We have to ask the difficult questions and be willing to freshly examine old assumptions,” Guillory writes in his budget message. “By honestly examining all aspects of our operations and diligently seeking better ways to do things, we can develop a real culture of innovation in Lafayette Consolidated Government.”
As a candidate, Guillory promised to do more with less. And that messaging was consistent before the pandemic blew up municipal budgets across the country and dried up tax revenues. He signed a pledge with conservative backers during his run, promising not to raise taxes and to prioritize infrastructure and public safety as core government priorities, rhetoric he’s stuck to since taking office. His budget accomplishes that and then some. Many of the notable cuts are to programs heavily criticized by the hardline conservatives that backed Guillory.
Those savings may come at great cost to families who rely on programs facing steep cuts. Guillory cut city general fund subsidies to the Parks and Recreation budget by 37%, including closures to four rec centers on the Northside and layoffs to three dozen employees. That’s on top of layoffs at the Lafayette Science Museum, Heymann Performing Arts Center and other cultural programs that sparked fierce backlash earlier this summer. Going into Tuesday’s council meeting, the rec center decision surfaced outrage among Black leaders blindsided by the late-week announcement and subsequent scrambles to explain the decision. Guillory faced a long chain of rebuke from community members, egged on by jeers from the auditorium, in a marathon meeting that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. Many called Guillory to find cuts in his own office, including sacking Guillory’s chief of minority affairs, Carlos Harvin, a former member of the Senior Pastoral Alliance who’s reportedly lost what little credibility he had with many Black leaders.
“You should be ashamed,” NAACP chapter President Marja Broussard said through a mask, turning her glare directly to the seated mayor-president. Broussard and others have characterized Guillory’s cuts as disparate in their treatment of services cherished by the Black community. His decision to back moving a Confederate statue in Downtown Lafayette brought him little to no capital with aggrieved Black leaders, who nonetheless chastised the administration for failing to understand the role the rec centers play. Around 2 a.m., the city council voted unanimously to support moving the statue, an emotional coda to the meeting.
Guillory defended the rec cuts by sticking with a justification he made in the days after the announcement spurred rallies and a widely circulated petition. “The facts are one-third of our rec centers still proudly serve the Northside,” he said coolly in the heat of public comment. Again, the auditorium groaned and Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin gaveled for order. All four rec centers are in neighborhoods with relatively low rates of vehicle ownership. The administration’s vaguely articulated plan for public-private partnerships with local church groups has not curried favor among advocates fighting to keep the rec centers open.
“You’ve made it perfectly clear what the priorities of the administration is, and that’s fine; I certainly respect that. But parks and recreation and anti-poverty programs and services provided by community development are to my district what drainage is to Liz and Nanette’s districts,” City Councilman Glenn Lazard said, referencing fellow City Council members Liz Hebert and Nanette Cook, both of whom represent portions of south Lafayette. Lazard’s comment was met with loud applause from a packed council auditorium Tuesday night.
Many of the cuts would remain indefinitely. Longterm, the administration severs operating subsidies — supplemental dollars from the city general fund — for many of the affected programs. That’s consistent with Guillory’s calls to remake local government as we know it and push for more privatization where possible. Some cuts will be restored. Subsidies to Lafayette Transit System would stop for the next two fiscal years, replaced in the interim by a $7 million award from the federal coronavirus stimulus, with funding reverting to pre-Covid levels. But others, like the cuts to the Heymann Performing Arts Center that drew uproar from the dance companies that use the space, won’t be restored.
The budget forecasts steep losses in revenue into the next year. In her published budget discussion, Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups projects a 17% reduction in sales tax revenue in the current fiscal year, and another 11% decrease in the next one That includes $7.5 million in lost utility revenues, as bills have gone unpaid during the pandemic. LUS rolled out a program to help families catch up on their bills, spreading the debt out as long as they’re able to stop accruing more. It’s unclear whether LCG will take advantage of the $35 million in debt capacity it sought as a backstop to operations.
Belts are tightening hard while the city’s substantial reserves are jealously protected. Noting in his budget message the $18 million operating deficit he “inherited” from the previous administration and council, Guillory makes sparing use of the substantial cushion provided by general fund reserves. The city sat on an unaudited fund balance of $54 million going into this year, an amount that would cover 50% of its annual operating costs. For perspective, the city of Lafayette began fiscal year 2010 with a $19 million fund balance, then 20% of its audited expenses, at a time when consolidated government was climbing out of a hole. Guillory’s proposed budget and forecasts for coming years would park the general fund balance around $30 million, or 30% of operating costs while revenues creep up. Long-standing local fiscal policy has targeted a fund balance covering 20% of expenses. Guillory’s proposal, anticipating sluggish revenue growth, keeps reserves well above that threshold.
“That is what I’m looking into. I get you’re trying to keep money in the general fund. These are the rainy day funds,” says Councilwoman Cook, who has also needled the administration for a lack of communication on some budget figures, including the numbers used to justify the rec center closures. She notes $890,000 in unencumbered CREATE funds, a figure she’d been after to clarify but unable to get pinned down. “That’s the first time I’m getting that number. Those are funds that could be put to good use. To shut down things just for a nice float…I don’t think so.”
This is a proposed budget and subject to council debate. Both the city and parish councils will have to sign off on the administration’s plan. Over the next couple of months, budget sessions will break the constituent parts down, and council amendments could radically change how the budget looks once it gets to the other side of final adoption. And even then, major changes can be made. Most of the added expenses weighing down the current budget — pay raises for police, fire and LCG personnel — were passed after the previous budget was adopted.