Big takeaways from Lafayette’s Protect the City draft report

The Protect the City Committee
The Protect the City Committee meets in March 2021. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Starting this week, the committee taking stock of how well consolidation is working for the city of Lafayette will host a series of town halls to gather public input on its draft report. The report’s headline is simple — consolidation is unfair and dysfunctional — but its findings go a bit deeper than that. Here are several big takeaways. 

Read it for yourself. You can read through the 28-page draft report here.

Consolidation never happened. What’s “consolidated” in Lafayette Consolidated Government are the administrative services of the city of Lafayette and Lafayette Parish. Lafayette now has two councils — legislative bodies for city and parish governments but one administration. That’s about all that’s combined, and that’s where the trouble starts. An important concept to keep in mind: The city and parish were never dissolved as legal entities and have separate budgets. 

We consolidated services and created a third entity, Lafayette Consolidated Government,” says PTC committee member Roddy Bergeron. “I call into question the use of the term consolidation.” 

No one knows exactly how much consolidation costs. And this problem goes back years. In the early 1990s, supporters argued consolidation would save taxpayers as much as $5 million every year. Where the figure came from is lost to history — the committee questions whether it was little more than a bit of PR advocacy — and those savings never materialized. 

Today, budgeting is super messy. LCG uses the city general fund as its operating fund — essentially the government’s checking account — and shared revenue streams are mixed up constantly. Figuring out how much money city taxpayers spend on non-city services is really hard to pin down. The PTC pegs the figure at $5 million annually, based on an estimate produced by former M-P Joey Durel in 2013, and even that figure is built on a political premise: that costs should be shared by population. 

“It would be impossible to arrive at a specific dollar amount of savings to the City in the event of deconsolidation, but … the Committee can reasonably surmise that the savings would exceed $5 million annually.” 

Youngsville and Broussard grew a lot. That’s obvious. But the growth is staggering compared with the city of Lafayette’s growth over the same period. Responding to questions from the PTC, the Guillory administration suggested that consolidation has been an “engine” of economic growth for the city of Lafayette, pointing out that city limits grew by 20% through annexations. Youngsville grew 400%, the report finds. Broussard grew 105%.

Protect the City Committee – Town Hall Schedule

6/14 – District 3 (Liz Hebert) at South Regional Library, 5:30 p.m.
6/16 – District 1 (Pat Lewis) and District 5 (Glenn Lazard) at Clifton Chenier Center, 6 p.m.
6/17 – District 4 (Nanette Cook) at South Regional Library, 6 p.m.
6/17 – District 2 (Andy Naquin) at Robicheaux Recreation Center, 7 p.m.
6/21 – General Town Hall at Acadiana Center for the Arts, 5:30 p.m.
6/22 – Draft report public hearing at City-Parish Hall, 5:30 p.m.

The city of Lafayette is also losing its population majority, defying one of the original predictions driving consolidation. Early advocacy about consolidation was based on a bit of common sense: Lafayette Parish is small, and one day, the city of Lafayette will take up most of it. That’s not what happened. 

Lafayette Parish has grown much faster than the city of Lafayette. And not just the other municipalities. The unincorporated areas — areas that aren’t part of any city — have grown 60.5%. In 1996, Lafayette’s population was 63.4% of Lafayette Parish. In 2019, it was 51.6%, according to census estimates. Should that trend hold, Lafayette will comprise less than 50% of the parish population. (We’ll know for sure when the complete figures from the 2020 census are released later this year.) Why does that matter? It means Lafayette voters will have effectively lost control of electing their own mayor. 

“But what was never dreamed has now become a reality,” the report notes of population trends unforeseen by the framers of consolidation. “It will almost certainly soon be the case that a majority of the people eligible to vote for the City of Lafayette’s Mayor [currently the mayor-president] will live outside of the City of Lafayette, many of whom live in municipalities with their own mayors.” 

Cost allocation is politics, not science. How much city and parish taxpayers chip in for shared services is determined by about two-dozen formulas called the cost allocation schedule. Over the years, the cost share has changed from administration to administration. And it’s a can of worms that the City and Parish councils have been reluctant to open. 

Budget consultants approve the basic accounting method but do not review the supporting revenues and expenses. What this has meant in practice is that the formulas have generally been applied to reduce the cost burden of consolidation on parish government, which has little cash on hand and by law can’t run a deficit. 

“Accordingly, while the allocation process appears to be somewhat scientific at first glance, the process is driven almost entirely by politics. The politics driving cost allocation have, for the most part, been aimed at keeping the Parish from incurring deficits,” the report finds. 

How the city can protect itself now. Besides recommending deconsolidation, the committee outlines six short-term steps to advance city interests and citizen oversight: 

  • Create a consolidated operating fund. Using a combined operating fund to pay bills, instead of the city general fund, would make it easier to track spending. 
  • Hire an independent budget analyst for the City Council to help assess cost sharing and the fairness of annual budgets. 
  • Assert its power over LUS and LUS Fiber. The committee recommends charter amendments to put limitations on how long interim directors can serve and clarify the City Council’s role in approving a Fiber director.  
  • Use intergovernmental agreements. Contracting for services from each other would clarify responsibilities on joint projects, the committee suggests. 
  • Play hardball. If budgets are unfair, the City Council could reject them. This is a card the Council members have been reluctant to play. 
  • Elect Lafayette’s police chief. Admitting the recommendation was outside its purview, the committee nevertheless argues electing a police chief is consistent with the theme of direct citizen control.

What happens next? The report is a report. Whether it goes anywhere is a political question. Skeptics, including one PTC committee member, say the report’s findings were predetermined and unfairly targeted at Mayor-President Josh Guillory. Little in the report would change their minds. From here, a Charter Commission would be the typical next step. But the City Council would need Parish Council members to be on board, hardly a sure thing. And even if a Commission is appointed, deconsolidation could die at the ballot box, as it has before.