Lafayette's drainage and road spending hasn't kept up with its growth

A drainage channel on Lafayette's south side. Photo by Allison DeHart

In 2012, Lafayette faced a financial crisis. A recession killed off sales tax revenues, so the Durel administration and consolidated council dipped into fund balances to make ends meet at Lafayette Consolidated Government. Joey Durel — called City-Parish President back then — hatched an austerity plan to right-size the budget. For two years, he froze pay raises for most public employees and eliminated more than 100 vacant positions from the budgeted rolls. 

He merged the traffic department into Public Works and changed how the department was funded. Two parishwide property taxes for roads and drainage were diverted to pay for the department’s operations, stopping, according to Durel, the leak of city general fund and capital dollars into the unincorporated areas of the parish, where most of the Public Works employees spent their time. 

“We did what we could, as they say, to live within our means,” Durel tells me. 

This is the version of the Public Works Department we’ve inherited and from which Mayor-President Josh Guillory will attempt to squeeze out more productivity. In a joint meeting this week, members of the city and parish councils voted unanimously for the new structure, which carves out two separate divisions for drainage and streets. This is a first step, according to the new mayor-president, and he acknowledged in council discussion that it falls short of bolstering a thin workforce. 

“We all agree, there should be more crews,” he told council members. “But if we add more crews to this current organization, we’re not going to get as much bang for our buck.” 

Guillory faces not dissimilar circumstances to Durel’s last term of budgets. Both the city and parish face financial pressure. A slate of pay raises for police and other public employees passed by the last-ever consolidated council has hastened the city’s fund balance toward the red. Only new revenue or a dramatic reallocation of resources could reverse that course.

Like Durel before him, Guillory’s betting on efficiency in lean times. Across the board, he’s stayed on brand with a “more with less” policy toward running his government. He’ll have the opportunity in a few short months to propose his own budget, but it’s the council’s spending priorities that will rule out.

And for the last decade or more, Public Works has been doing relatively more with relatively less. Durel’s hiring freeze was, effectively, never reversed. Though Durel insists the positions cut were vacant and rarely, if ever, filled. The workforce and budget for that department has remained pretty much flat. In that same interim, however, what the department deals with has grown substantially. 

In 2009, LCG spent roughly $32.5 million on Public Works activities, just under 19% of general government expenditures — excluding LUS and other enterprise departments — for that year, including costs for building new roads, repairing bridges, mending roofs on public buildings, fixing police patrol cars and paying the salaries of the public employees who do all that and more. Two years ago, the last audited year available, LCG spent $29.4 million. As a percent of government expenses, Public Works spending declined to 14%. Capital outlay, which includes major purchases for all departments, not just Public Works, has jumped around. That’s generally the nature of capital spending, which is deployed over several years and can balloon and shrink from year to year depending on the project and available cash. Still, trends in spending haven’t changed much in the last decade. 

By contrast, over the same period, costs for public safety — which include both the police and fire departments — have climbed in step with a growing population. The parish grew 14% over the last 10 years. The city around 8%. Public safety costs for LCG, primarily deployed within city limits, rose just under 50% over that same period. In 2018, LCG spent $71.9 million on public safety functions. 

In fact, spending on virtually every consolidated government function have risen in that same time span — except Public Works.

Historically, turnover has remained high within the operations divisions, which include the crews and engineers primarily in charge of repairing and maintaining consolidated government’s infrastructure. The department, overall, is rarely fully staffed. As of October 2019, there were 30 open positions in the department, according to Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter. She notes that the number of vacancies changes almost daily, depending on seasonal needs etc. So that figure is a little squirrelly. 

Still, the breakdown of the budgeted operations workforce has remained remarkably consistent, even in the wake of the 2016 floods. In 2012, before Durel furloughed vacant positions, public works’ operations division budgeted for 167 employees, 76 in the drainage division and 72 in the streets division. The next year, and pretty much every year since, the manpower in the operations divisions has sat at 167, 62 in drainage and 58 in streets. Those are the workforces that will follow the carved up departments in the reorganization. Virtually every other division has remained the same — capital improvements, facility maintenance, vehicle maintenance, environmental quality, traffic engineering, traffic signal maintenance, transit operations and parking. 

But the department has found itself dealing with more responsibilities. Since 2014, drainage requests for service have increased 65%. Street requests have increased 36% over the same period. That’s where the public pressure to fix things shows up most clearly. Remarkably, clearance rates haven’t suffered tremendously. Drainage crews cleared 65% of 2,500 standing orders in 2019, down slightly over the previous year. 

Where the backlog shows up is in large inventories of streets requiring major repair and the tremendous list of deferred maintenance needs in parish drainage channels that the Robideaux administration attacked with a reallocation of funds in 2017. That same year, former Public Works Director Mark Dubroc inventoried 1,850 roads in need of major repair or reconstruction, a list that totals $97.8 million. The deferred drainage maintenance program, funded by a shuffling resources including $10 million in one-time dollars, would theoretically restore channels to their designed capacity and not to accommodate the work needed to deal with rising and speeding waters, the result of intensifying rain events and rapid, sprawling development.

In 2016, a public works study of the drainage system guesstimated a half-billion dollars was needed to overhaul the entire network of channels and coulees — some 850 miles in total parishwide. That was a provisional number, to be sure. But it reflects a massive infrastructure deficit incurred as the parish and city have continued to grow. Consider the Quail Hollow neighborhood, essentially a bowl surrounded by development. Some homeowners there have been told the cost of installing a pump, perhaps the only workable solution, would be more expensive than simply buying out properties that have flooded several times over. There are funding opportunities for projects that take a regional approach through the state’s Louisiana Watershed Initiative, which will spend $1.2 billion of federal money on stormwater management over the next ten years.

LCG and public works employees interviewed for this story note that the department has always been overmatched to its charge. Early into his administration, Durel put a one-cent sales tax before voters, pitching that the revenue could pay for $600 million in infrastructure upgrades over its lifetime. Voters walloped it at the ballot box, and no one has gone back to the voters with another try. Increasingly, voters demand that government find efficiencies to meet growing obligations. Two dedicated millages, which generate $11.5 million for streets and bridges and $7.9 million for drainage each year, will largely follow the new departments. 

“There’s only so much you gain through efficiency,” says Pat Logan, who oversaw the capital improvements and environmental quality divisions from the late 90s until he left consolidated government in 2012. “I’m not sure that’s the answer.” 

The logic of Robideaux’s deferred maintenance program, which under the new reorganization will remain with the winnowed Public Works department, was that the voters needed to see small action before they could get behind a bigger program. Guillory has offered that local funds may not be necessary, that state and federal grants could unlock projects now out of financial reach. This was a similar campaign promise made by Robideaux, a termed-out legislator, who billed his connections in Baton Rouge as a prime asset for dealing with infrastructure woes. Indeed, a major infrastructure package came out of the state last year, a bonanza of capital outlay authorized before everyone went home to run for office. But most of that money will go to new infrastructure. 

This is the essence of the conflict. New administrations are largely measured by what they create. In his final budget, Robideaux showed perhaps the only politically acceptable path: shifting funds away from new construction. He accomplished that by zeroing out major new road construction to budget for stormwater management within city limits, which wasn’t without pushback by the council. This is the game that consolidated government has played for decades, shifting priorities to meet public demand. 

“This community has historically spent more money on libraries than they did for drainage,” Durel says. “It’s the people’s priority, not the government’s.”