Lafayette Mayor-President-elect Monique Blanco Boulet is inheriting a mountain of unfinished business from ousted M-P Josh Guillory that will loom over at least the start of her four-year term.
Boulet takes office in January with a to-do list full of costly, difficult and politically-complicated challenges left over from Guillory’s single term in office. And solving them stands to be a test of the incoming M-P’s initial performance under pressure.
Parish jail relocation
The push for a new parish jail is one of the biggest problems waiting for her. Guillory initially pitched up to $10.5 million a year for 30 to 40 years on a leaseback agreement with private contractors who would build and maintain a new jail. The public-private arrangement was sold as a way to finance a new jail outside of Downtown without a new tax. But the parish government realistically has about $1.5 million per year it could free up for lease payments, leaving Boulet without a clear path to fund any substantial agreement.
Lafayette has $17.5 million in cash from the state for the new jail, and another $35 million in funding earmarked in the state budget at a lower priority. Unless LCG spends that $17.5 million before next spring’s legislative session, both pools of funds will go back to the Legislature for renewal. So far, Guillory’s administration is six months behind plans to announce a deal with the contractors chosen for the project a year ago, which suggests LCG is far from spending those state funds.
But backing out of the plan could prove costly for the new mayor-president. Downtown advocates celebrated the proposed removal of the existing jail, opening up more land for development, as a major economic victory. And Sheriff Mark Garber has repeatedly butted heads with parish government over the state of the current jail and LCG’s maintenance funding for it. Garber was also awarded state funds to move his Downtown operations to the new jail location, next to his existing facility on Willow Street, suggesting he too is invested in the relocation.
“The jail is going to be something that she’ll have to tackle because we do have rising crime, we do need to increase capacity, and we do have an aging facility that is costing more and more every day just to maintain the status quo,” says departing Parish Councilman Josh Carlson, who won a state representative seat this fall.
Boulet will also have to consider opposition to the proposed location of the new jail from neighborhoods on Lafayette’s Northside, which pushed her into the runoff election for M-P over challenger Jan Swift and buoyed her to victory over Guillory in November.
City Court relocation
Efforts to relocate Lafayette City Court similarly pose an early challenge for the incoming M-P, as the Guillory administration secured a 45-day extension last week to finalize its agreement to purchase the Lemoine Building Downtown for $6.2 million to renovate it for City Court.
Guillory pitched the City Court move during his last year in office as part of a plan with Rock ‘N’ Bowl owner Johnny Blancher to convert the existing court campus on Convent Street into a 208-unit mixed-use development to add to Downtown’s supply of housing and public parking.
At Guillory’s request, the City Council approved $9.5 million for the move in September, but that won’t even cover the proposed renovations to the building, which are estimated to cost as much as $9.6 million.
The 45-day extension puts the Lemoine Building decision firmly in Boulet’s third week as mayor-president next year, giving her little time to develop alternatives. It also means a fresh-faced City Council — with three new members out of five total — will be left to approve any funding plan the new M-P might put together for the project.
“The opportunity right now, with a new council and a new administration, is to let all this other [stuff] fall away and say, ‘Is it a good idea to invest $15 million … to do a really significant play that we’ve never done something of this scale before and catalyze future things to happen?’” says Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud, who is leaving that role next week.
Without more funding or a new plan, Boulet may have to drop the deal altogether, which would kill Blancher’s proposed investment in redeveloping that Convent Street block and nix the potential for a major boost of foot traffic to the Lemoine Building and that end of Downtown.
Homewood detention ponds
Boulet is also facing a major decision on the massive Homewood Drive detention pond project, which was a defining aspect of Guillory’s single term in office. In the past two years, the roughly $62 million project has been the center of an expensive expropriation settlement, a battle with the state government over reimbursements and an investigation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Work on the series of ponds has slowed in recent weeks as LCG awaits approval from the Corps, but the ponds remain unconnected to the Vermilion River, and their effectiveness in preventing flooding is unproven.
The new M-P says her first step with Homewood is to have the project’s impact modeled by independent engineers, likely at UL’s Louisiana Watershed Flood Center, to determine whether its impact on flooding would justify the cost to complete it. UL’s initial model of an early version of the Homewood ponds found lackluster results, and creating a new model of the actual project may take weeks or even months after she gets into office. In the meantime, LCG is still waiting on some $22 million in reimbursements from the state for the project.
Getting those reimbursements will likely require some cooperation from the Corps, which began investigating work on the detention ponds months ago. That has precluded LCG from obtaining a Corps permit to connect the ponds to the Vermilion River or disturb the presumed protected wetland areas on the site, trapping at least part of those state funds in the process.
Whether Boulet determines the project is worth completing or not, it remains a monumental issue, as neighbors have complained about environmental disruptions caused by work there, and Guillory’s administration has done little to plan for the massive ponds’ future maintenance costs.
Spoil banks dispute
Drainage project holdovers from the Guillory administration don’t end there, as St. Martin Parish’s lawsuit against LCG over its secretive removal of spoil banks in the Bayou Tortue Swamp behind the airport remains pending heading into the new year.
The clandestine removal infuriated elected leaders in St. Martin Parish, who authorized now-departing Parish President Chester Cedars to sue LCG immediately after the removal was discovered. LCG’s own lawsuit against St. Martin Parish and the Corps took precedence, but hasn’t amounted to much for the city-parish since it was filed in 2021.
Guillory’s departure may be all that’s needed to cure the bad blood between LCG and St. Martin Parish, but Boulet will have to work with incoming St. Martin Parish President Pete Delcambre if she hopes to resolve the case amicably. She’ll also have to deal with a lawsuit filed in Lafayette by the remaining owner of the land where the spoil banks were removed.
LUS Fiber’s expansion beyond Lafayette Parish, which was a major accomplishment for Boulet as CEO of the Acadiana Planning Commission, may present yet another challenge for the new mayor-president.
The expansion, funded largely by a massive federal grant, relies on LUS Fiber to match part of those funds, which could be a difficult proposition for the city-owned telecom. Fiber has long been on precarious financial footing, and the rural expansion is expected to cost it at least $5 million, more than twice its annual build-out budget. And Guillory’s introduction of a $3 million annual “in lieu of tax” payment by Fiber to the city in 2022 was similarly concerning to Fiber’s advocates. Cutting that back to the roughly $1 million a year that Fiber previously paid the city for “imputed taxes” is a solution Boulet is looking at to avoid jeopardizing the rural expansion she championed last year.
Finally, efforts to replace the Heymann Performing Arts Center will revolve around Boulet and the next City Council once they take office in January. The ongoing push to build a replacement facility has been slow, and will likely require a new local tax to bolster state funding for the project, all of which went to UL.