Councils take control of Lafayette’s rescue money. Now what?

City Council member Glenn Lazard
After he failed to get answers about the cost of the Dignitary Protection Unit to protect the mayor-president, City Councilman Glenn Lazard turned the matter over to investigators. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Zeroing out the Guillory administration’s plan, the City and Parish councils took control of how to spend $86 million in pandemic aid. In a long joint meeting Tuesday night, they wrestled with a lack of certainty about which projects would qualify, rebuffing the administration’s pressure to get something approved fast. 

Get caught up, quickly: Passed in March, the American Rescue Plan Act sent billions to American cities and states as pandemic relief. Lafayette Consolidated Government received separate allocations for the city ($38.3 million) and the parish ($47.5 million). Earlier this month, the Guillory administration surprised council members with a “competitive investment” plan that spent no money dealing with the pandemic and a lot of money on infrastructure

Moving ahead, separately. A successful amendment originally proposed by Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin defunded the dozens of projects pushed by the Guillory administration and redirected the money into separate reserve funds. The two councils agreed to split $360,000 in contract costs to hire a compliance consultant after the administration warned of a looming reporting deadline. With Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s plan effectively on ice, and the funds disentangled from his combined plan, the councils will mostly take separate paths on Lafayette’s ARPA funding from here. 

They aren’t quite starting over. The councils are working through adding projects that would address “social service” needs, most directly heeding a request from agencies to fund a new shelter to ease the rising burden of homelessness in the region. City and Parish council members are poised to share the cost of the shelter plan, but it’s unclear at this moment how that will work. Agencies led by the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness and Catholic Charities have requested $6.5 million to fund a new shelter and four years of operations. 

“We have some work to do,” Councilwoman Nanette Cook tells The Current. She intends to engage service agencies to see what needs are pressing, highlighting the shelter as an obvious starting point. 

Lack of clarity was a big issue among council members. Much of the spending in Guillory’s plan was of questionable eligibility, and the administration struggled to make the case for moving ahead now with so much uncertainty. His plan called for $28 million in road projects alone, but other capital projects — among them a skate park and a new fleet of golf carts — fall into that same grey area. Spending on routine infrastructure projects is eligible by way of backfilling lost revenue, but the administration’s plan for road spending would likely outstrip the revenue shortfalls ARPA guidelines will allow LCG to claim. 

Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups dodged council questions about the obvious gap. Because parish revenues did not dip in 2020, Parish Councilman Josh Carlson pegged revenue backfill around $4 million, using a rough calculation of an ARPA formula that allows governments to make up for slow growth, not just lost revenue. Tuesday night, Toups deferred to official calculations to come but hinted that Carlson wasn’t far off the mark with his guess. 

“It would be a stretch to get from $4 million to $28 million,” Carlson says. Still, he largely approves the approach the admin is taking, seeing infrastructure as the top need voiced by his constituents. “I’d rather err on the side of action,” he says. 

Parish Councilman Josh Carlson
Parish Councilman Josh Carlson. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Control was the other theme. Guillory’s plan saddled the Parish Council with $4 million in administrative costs and millions more in projects within city limits. Early in the discussion, Naquin successfully moved to claw back the parish money allocated to city affairs, setting the stage for the councils to go their separate ways. City Council members doggedly checked the final amendment scuttling Guillory’s plan, clearly checking the fine print to ensure they would walk away in control of their own funds and not beholden to the plan as presented.

An amendment that would have given the administration the authority to fund ARPA projects with non-ARPA dollars died without mustering a motion from the City Council. The City Council has been vying for more autonomy, often locking horns with the administration in publicly polite terms. 

“It gave the administration entirely too much control,” City Councilman Glenn Lazard says of Guillory’s ARPA plan. 

Council members broadly approved of the projects on the list. That’s because the many of projects came from them. Council members were, however, initially unaware that the administration had populated its ARPA plan with projects they’d requested for the regular budget. While members of both councils broadly agreed on pumping the brakes to get more clarity on what’s allowed, they diverged on what to do with the projects already proposed and the shape of projects to come. 

How do you think Lafayette should use its ARPA money? Tell us here.

But what about other eligible uses? Some are pretty clear: funding healthcare responses, addressing economic disparities caused by the pandemic, dealing with the impacts of climate change (drainage is a near lock) or restoring lost public sector revenue. Readers have prioritized stormwater management and housing in our ongoing survey, both of which fit squarely in the current guidelines. In interviews with council members, ideas ranged from sticking with the proposal and working through what’s eligible and immediately doable, figuring out the rest as they go, to a more robust public process to surface projects that better align with the “intent” of the ARPA program. Shreveport held 11 town hall meetings, City Council members Cook and Lazard note. But neither sees a need to go that big. 

“We need to find a way to get the community engaged,” Lazard says. 

Other communities have emphasized public input and pandemic aid. Madison, Wis., broke its program into two tranches — local governments are receiving the funding in two parts — broadly sketching out priorities for deploying around half of its $47 million ARPA allocation: violence prevention and youth engagement, homelessness support, affordable housing, economic development and emerging needs. From there, officials requested public input for specific projects on an ongoing basis. Federal rules require the funds be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026. 

“There’s ample opportunity to pause and be strategic. If you’re starting those community conversations now, I think you’re still on track,” David Whitley of the Center for Planning Excellence said during our ARPA webinar earlier this month. 

Missed our ARPA webinar? Watch it here.

Lafayette is poised to go big on infrastructure in its regular budget. The Guillory administration, projecting sustained record highs in sales tax revenues, has proposed the largest capital program in the city’s history — and that’s without the heavy infrastructure spending sketched out in its ARPA plan. Still, council members want to keep projects they’ve advocated for, as long as they comply with federal guidelines. Federal funds are pouring into both infrastructure spending and social aid programs, and advocates for either priority have seized on those windfalls in other sectors to make their cases. 

So where do we go from here? That much is unclear. Between the councils, there’s a shared appetite for broad revision of how Lafayette will use ARPA funds. One thing that is now clear: The ball is in their court.