Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: We’re going to pay for LCG’s bad behavior on drainage 

Aerial of Homewood detention pond
LCG has spent millions of dollars on drainage projects since 2016, but local rules don't require it to determine how much that work is really worth. Photo by Robin May

It’s tough to get your arms around what’s going wrong with LCG’s three most controversial drainage projects. There’s not just one mistake but a host of compounding issues: lawsuits, disregard for the law, cherry-picking science, and questionable priorities. 

Legal problems with the Homewood and Lake Farm detention projects and the spoil banks removal project in St. Martin Parish threaten to waste millions of public dollars on actions that may not save anyone from flooding. And that’s just the money already spent. Damages from the lawsuits could pile on millions more in liabilities. 

They all violate a set of common sense principles that no government should ignore — no matter how much they want to prioritize action over planning. 

Put simply: It’s bad government. And we’re going to pay for it. 

Don’t steal

LCG stole dirt and trees from a private landowner in St. Martin Parish. After the city of Lafayette bought only a two-thirds undivided interest in the property, LCG secretly removed 27,000 cubic yards of dirt (at least that’s what it was billed for) and a bunch of trees without notifying the third owner and without even making an offer to buy his land

This theft is on top of the hundreds of acres of private land LCG effectively stole by unlawfully expropriating them. LCG’s first two quick-take expropriations — for the ponds at Lake Farm and Homewood — were deemed unlawful primarily due to lack of proper planning. If LCG loses its appeals, taxpayers could be liable for tens of millions of dollars worth of damages to restore these properties that LCG already destroyed.  

Tell the truth

Mayor-President Josh Guillory has consistently mischaracterized the science on these projects. And LCG’s legal predicament has the administration playing loose with the truth, too. Every step of the way, the administration’s mendacity has gone unchecked. 

Twice Guillory claimed UL has produced work “supporting” Homewood, when, in fact, UL’s findings don’t support that massive detention pond project north of Milton. At a joint council meeting in May, Guillory said, “The university, objectively, and in a non-biased manner, issued a letter recently supporting this project.” 

But here’s what that April 19, 2022, memo requested by State Sen. Page Cortez (UL’s communications department confirmed Cortez asked for it) actually said: “The Homewood ponds are not expected to lead to reductions in actual flood losses.” 

More than that, LCG has been dishonest with the public about the benefits of these major drainage projects. Guillory et al have touted the impact of these projects, but they haven’t actually done any analysis to demonstrate whether they would prevent any properties from flooding. They’ve continued to invoke the trauma of the 2016 floods with these projects, without acknowledging that their own research suggests these projects will have negligible benefit in a storm that big. 

Further, Guillory’s administration can’t even answer the simple question of whether LCG has a plan for all this drainage work. In May 2021, Guillory told the council, “We didn’t have a parish plan when we came in.” He then touted how LCG had just signed a contract with an engineering firm to create a plan he said should be ready in six months. 

LCG lost the Lake Farm case in large part because it admitted not having a plan. Then, LCG changed its tune. In the Homewood suit, LCG has claimed a 2017 document produced by Homewood engineer Pam Granger is its plan. Granger’s plan proposed various detention sites but didn’t include Homewood. 

And now, despite not having produced the plan he promised by the end of last year, Guillory is asking the City Council to approve $500,000 for a “comprehensive stormwater plan.” If we’ve already got a plan, why are we paying for a new one?

Don’t waste money

Everyone hates government waste. Well how about this for waste: LCG paid $3.7 million to move 27,000 cubic yards of dirt for the spoil banks project. That’s an all-in cost of almost $140 per cubic yard, which is more than 10 times the market rate. Imagine if this carelessness spilled over to the 3 million cubic yards of dirt that was supposed to be excavated for the Homewood ponds.

And LCG could theoretically be wasting every dime of the $100 million appropriated for drainage. LCG has not produced cost-benefit analyses for any of its major drainage projects. These analyses are common practice for major infrastructure projects. For drainage, they evaluate the total property value that a project will save from flooding relative to its cost. Without such an analysis there’s no real way to evaluate the ROI of these projects relative to any alternatives. Instead we’re flying blind.

Obey the law

LCG has violated all sorts of laws. And not just by stealing trees and illegally expropriating land. On the St. Martin Parish spoil banks project alone, LCG appears to have violated laws protecting private property rights, St. Martin Parish’s law against working on a levee without a permit, state public bid law prohibiting no-bid contracts, and state law prohibiting governments from paying more for land than it’s worth. That’s on top of federal laws requiring permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, which has opened an investigation into this project.

These moves were made in the name of speed and action. Ongoing legal action could make this all for naught. 

This is unacceptable

Between the Homewood ponds, the Lake Farm ponds, and the spoil banks alone, city and parish taxpayers might have to come up with $50 million over the next couple of years to pay for damages. All because of this administration’s bad choices. 

Yet the councils continue to sign off on the administration’s plans without scrutiny, caught up in the belief that the ends would justify the means and deluded by the administration’s argument that these are all minor quibbles of no real concern. 

But government stealing property is a big deal. Government wasting money on ineffective projects is a big deal. Government mischaracterizing the benefits of its efforts is a big deal. Government violating laws and leaving taxpayers holding the bag is a big deal. 

As much as we can’t afford to do nothing to improve our drainage, we also can’t afford to waste money on bad behavior.