Lafayette councils OK $22 million in ARPA funds for drainage, Downtown

Waters reached 11 feet inside the Downtown underpass in June 2019. A woman safely escaped a car stalled at the bottom of the dip. Photo by Christiaan Mader

The gist: Three weeks after voting to take more control over the process, Lafayette’s City and Parish councils restored millions in federal rescue money to mostly Downtown drainage and public safety projects first proposed in an administration-led plan for how to deploy the unparalleled Covid relief funds. 

Get caught up, quickly: Lafayette received a total of $86 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal coronavirus relief package passed earlier this year. Mayor-President Josh Guillory sprung a combined plan on council members in August that was heavy on infrastructure but included no money for pandemic relief. Council members zeroed out the m-p’s plan and put the parish and city allocations in reserves. Guillory used line item vetoes to restore seven projects, paid for only by city dollars. The councils sustained those vetoes in a special joint meeting Tuesday night. 

Here are the seven projects back on the books: 

  • Downtown drainage –  $12.5 million 
  • Downtown lighting improvements – $2.5 million 
  • Downtown sidewalks – $1 million
  • Downtown sidewalks, Phase II – $500,000 
  • Downtown traffic calming – $250,000
  • Downtown police precinct – $50,000
  • Citywide drainage – $5.2 million 

City Council members voted 3-2 to override, falling short of the supermajority required to strike the vetoes. Parish Council members voted 5-0 to sustain the vetoes. Because the item was a joint ordinance, both councils would have needed supermajorities to successfully override the veto. 

This commits more than half of the city of Lafayette’s allocation to projects that do not address the pandemic or its economic impact. During council discussion in August, council members on both bodies largely agreed to carve out space for social service agencies spearheading pandemic and economic aid. 

Downtown folks fought for their homes and businesses. The district has been badly flooded in recent years, in large part because of decades-old pipes and drains that can’t handle intense volumes of water. Between the ARPA allocation and big projects in the upcoming capital budget, Downtown will get tens of millions in new infrastructure, a welcome boom for its boosters. 

“We’ve been asking for that funding for Downtown drainage to be prioritized for years, and it seems like we finally might have an opportunity to make that happen,” Pop’s Poboys owner Collin Cormier said Tuesday night. Pop’s has flooded routinely over the last few years, even after minor rains. “I’m not asking for Downtown drainage and safety funding in place of any of the other initiates [eligible in ARPA] listed, but in conjunction with them,” he said.

Others urged caution and asked for an equitable plan. City Councilman Glenn Lazard, joined by Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook in voting to override, has continued to advocate that ARPA funding go to fighting the pandemic and repairing economic damage, both of which have disproportionately impacted Black Americans. Lazard represents a majority Black district that includes Downtown. Cook argued that funding decisions should wait until federal guidance on eligibility is ironed out. 

“Two million for lights is absurd when I drive the Northside and see homeless people, when just two weeks ago you guys were talking about golf carts,” Nureaka Ross, political action chair for the Lafayette NAACP, said during public comments Tuesday night. “And God forbid Lafayette is impacted by a hurricane in the future, I hope those lights and golf carts are still important to you all. It just doesn’t sit right on me.” 

Do these projects qualify? In all likelihood, yes. But it’s hard to say for sure. Federal guidance allows local governments to spend ARPA dollars on “water, sewer and broadband infrastructure,” and stormwater infrastructure would appear to fit the bill. 

Hurry up and wait. In August, the councils OK’d budgeting $380,000 to contract an audit firm at the panicked urging of the administration, which warned that failing to budget the firm would risk delaying the filing of a report required for compliance. That decision effectively kept the mayor-president’s project list in play and preserved the joint ordinance carrying it. Tuesday night, CAO Cydra Wingerter said the firm was not yet hired, and that the report was filed without them, contradicting the administration’s earlier urgency. 

What to watch for: How they plan to allocate the rest of the money. The City Council still has $16 million to spend, and the Parish Council has nearly all of its $47.5 million unrestricted. There was a soft commitment to co-fund a new shelter to help address rising homelessness in the Acadiana region.