The city and parish’s $86 million windfall from the American Rescue Plan presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our community. If we follow the proposal laid out by the Guillory administration this week, we’re going to blow it.
Mayor-President Josh Guillory chose to surprise everyone with a plan that no one seems to have known he was working on that’s clearly half-baked. He gave the councils — and the public — as little notice as possible. Council members didn’t get copies of his proposal until after he gave a perfunctory two-minute introduction of the single largest federal windfall in Lafayette’s history.
The lack of engagement might be forgivable if the proposal was amazing, but it’s not. We need to start over from scratch.
To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t qualified projects of merit in his proposed list of 70. But there’s just so much that’s wrong about this plan — both what’s in it and what’s not.
Guillory effectively ignores the intent of this funding, which the U.S. Treasury describes this way: “The American Rescue Plan will change the course of the pandemic and deliver immediate and direct relief to families and workers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis through no fault of their own.”
This proposal allocates zero dollars to mount a response to the resurgent pandemic, which is on the rise again, with hospitals starting to fill up and young, unvaccinated people dying.
And it provides no money for people in need. This funding could be used for all sorts of community projects, like getting homeless people shelter and hungry people food. Instead, at a time when hundreds of people in our community are struggling to find food and shelter and thousands of people are at risk of getting evicted, Guillory wants to spend $1.5 million for new golf carts. And $2 million for pool repairs. And $50,000 on disc golf.
At the same time, he’s suggesting funding a host of projects that may be ineligible expenses, such as the $28.3 million he wants to spend on roads and bridges. Current Treasury guidance says these projects “typically would not be considered a response to the public health emergency and its negative economic impacts unless the project responds to a specific pandemic-related public health need (e.g., investments in facilities for the delivery of vaccines) or a specific negative economic impact of the pandemic (e.g., affordable housing in a Qualified Census Tract).”
I honestly don’t see how spending $3.5 million to extend Frem Boustany Drive from Edinburgh Drive to Vincent Road could be justified as responding to the public health emergency and its negative economic impacts, or $2.75 million to extend Cue Road, or $1 million to add a right turn lane at the intersection of Kaliste Saloom and Ambassador Caffery. This list goes on and on.
What’s so scary about this is that if we spend this money on these projects and the federal government decides they aren’t eligible, we may have to pay that money back, potentially with interest. The parish faces particular peril with this as it’s on the hook for $23 million of these road projects. If it spends that much money on asphalt and has to pay it back, it could literally bankrupt the parish.
As bad as all this is, it isn’t the only policy I’ve seen LCG pursue that fails to prioritize pressing community needs and instead spends money in ways it probably shouldn’t. What makes Guillory’s proposal such a uniquely bad policy is the convoluted way he’s structured his plan.
He’s proposing passing this as a joint ordinance when it doesn’t have to be done jointly. Under sharp questioning about this from City Councilwoman Nanette Cook, Guillory claimed that this funding was subject to the budget process and therefore had to be approved by joint ordinance. But that’s simply not true.
Both councils could accept and appropriate this money using their own ordinances and then start figuring out which projects they want to fund on their own without needing to get the other council’s permission. At a time when tensions are already high between the councils over budgetary issues, Guillory is unnecessarily increasing the potential for more conflict.
He’s also proposing that we appropriate all $86 million at once in a single ordinance. This is a horrible idea for multiple reasons:
- It dramatically lowers the opportunities for the public to scrutinize the merits of each project. Guillory’s budget wants the councils to approve 70 projects all at once rather than getting proposals, presentations and public hearings about each project either individually or in smaller groups.
- It substantially increases the mayor-president’s authority over how this money gets spent because of the clause that allows him to reappropriate unspent funds between projects without the councils’ approval, effectively giving him a slush fund with minimal public oversight.
- It rushes to appropriate 100% of this funding right away rather than doing the more prudent thing, which is to hold some back in reserve to allow for greater flexibility to respond to whatever happens over the next year that may change our community’s priorities.
Sometimes I worry that council members are too polite for their own good. In a situation like this, that attitude could convince them that since some of their personal projects made it onto the list, everyone should just get along and kumbaya our way forward. But that approach is the exact opposite of what our community needs right now. Guillory’s proposal is clearly deficient in multiple substantive ways. Which is why I believe the councils should reject this and start on developing their own plan.
Lafayette deserves better than this.