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

Column: Lafayette’s got an infrastructure hangover coming

Detention ponds aren’t just holes in the ground. They come with maintenance costs too.

Over the last few years, an unprecedented amount of funding has been available for Lafayette to spend on infrastructure.

Record high sales tax collections driven by billions in stimulus and hurricane recovery funds. Eighty-six million dollars in recovery funds plopped into the city and parish’s bank accounts, plus billions more being made available in grants. And most recently, hundreds of millions in state capital outlay dollars.

With unprecedented funding has come unprecedented spending. Tens of millions of dollars on all sorts of drainage projects. Tens of millions on extending, widening and repaving roads. Tens of millions budgeted for superparks.

It’s a literal bonanza for politicians who like to cut ribbons and crow about how smart they are for spending money on “one-time capital projects.”

But there’s no such thing as a one-time capital project, because there are always ongoing maintenance costs.

Detention ponds aren’t just holes in the ground. The land around them needs to be mowed. The big ones — like the dubious ponds on Homewood Drive — will even need to be dredged from time to time. And various equipment will have to be maintained.

You know all those roads they want to extend or widen? We have to pay to maintain and eventually repave every mile of new road we build. 

You know those superparks at Brown Park and Moore Park, and the fever dream at Heymann Park? If these superparks operate like their counterparts in Youngsville and Broussard, they will require hundreds of thousands in operating subsidies.

Four years ago I wrote about how Lafayette’s billion dollar infrastructure deficit was the elephant in the last election for mayor-president and both councils. I showed how Lafayette wasn’t collecting enough tax revenue to properly address its various infrastructure challenges.

In some ways the hundreds of millions that materialized out of thin air have helped address our infrastructure challenges. But in other ways all of this spending on new infrastructure has made the problem worse.

We already didn’t collect enough money to properly maintain our existing drainage, roads and parks infrastructure. And now we’ve got all sorts of new infrastructure that has to be taken care of.

In the short-term, we likely won’t feel the pain of these increased obligations, since newer infrastructure tends to cost less to maintain. Plus it will take a few years for the untold billions in federal money to work their way through the economy. But eventually the bills are going to start coming due.

Politicians continue to repeat the mistakes of the past by spending money on new infrastructure that increases our overall net liabilities without proving that these investments will actually pay for themselves. And without ever addressing the fundamental question of ensuring we have enough funding to maintain our existing infrastructure.

As a community, we’ve been avoiding those hard questions. We’ve allowed politicians to duck addressing these long-term shortfalls. We haven’t demanded honest assessments about how much infrastructure we can actually afford given our current funding. Or required some semblance of long-term infrastructure planning, ideally something that we commit to across multiple administrations.

Instead, we’ve been stuck on an endless cycle of politicians spending money on whatever their preferred grab bag of pet projects are, whenever money happens to come available, with no real consideration for how this spending might saddle our future with one unfunded maintenance liability after another.

It’d be one thing if these were boom times in Lafayette’s economy. You could argue that we’ll just grow our way out of any shortfalls. But that’s not our reality. While our economy has stabilized, we haven’t fully recovered. And we face a number of troubling headwinds, like the challenges young people face in choosing Lafayette as the place to build their lives.

It’d be another thing if we were a community that was open to considering approving new taxes. We could fill any infrastructure deficit Lafayette faces if we were willing to pay for it. But given recent history Lafayette’s voters are clearly not rushing to approve new taxes. And Lafayette’s elected officials have not shown the ability to muster up enough support to overcome that anti-tax bias.

Unfortunately, for much of this infrastructure spending, it’s already too late. For example, we can’t un-spend the tens of millions Mayor-President Josh Guillory wasted moving dirt to build ponds that won’t prevent flooding. 

But not all of it. At least some of these projects will still be in the planning and design stage when the new government is seated in January after this fall’s elections. And every year new decisions are made about how our money should be spent on building or maintaining our infrastructure. So it’s never too late to have our voices heard. 

That’s why the next time you hear a politician running for office this fall bragging about all the new infrastructure they want to build, ask yourself — or better yet ask them — how are we going to pay to maintain it? How are we going to have enough money to fix the potholes on my road, maintain the drainage infrastructure that’s already protecting my house, and take care of my park if we’re spending all this money building new infrastructure?