Parish Council told it’s too broke to improve early voting, jail or courthouse

The gist: Only a few weeks in, and the new Parish Council is beginning to grapple with its budget woes. Consolidated government’s chief financial officer painted a bleak picture: Funds for the jail and courthouse will dry up, and there’s no money to add more early voting locations.

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COLUMN: Rushing to shakeup LUS and Fiber is risky. Let’s take a deep breath first.

Efforts to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by consolidating IT departments could create risks that cost Lafayette millions of dollars. We need experienced leadership in place first before considering this proposal.

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Council Preview: More charter housekeeping and some tax breaks

The gist: The city and parish councils have another slow night scheduled for their meetings on Feb. 4 with a smattering of housekeeping. The only big items on the agenda are two resolutions to approve restoration tax abatements for redevelopment projects.

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Joint Council

Tax breaks. There are two resolutions on the agenda to approve requests for restoration tax abatement. This state program allows owners to invest in restoring their properties without having to increase their property taxes for a period of time because of the increased value of their restored property. 

  1. University Place Apartments. These apartments were purchased for $12.5 million by Alpha Capital Partners of Pennsylvania through its Opportunity Zone Fund last year. The plan is to invest $7.5 million in renovating the interior and exterior of this building. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego generating an additional $564,995 in property taxes.
  1. Park Place Surgery Center. This property was purchased for $4.1 million by local investment group Imperial Property Holdings last year. The plan is to invest $5 million in renovating and expanding the building for a new surgery center. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego paying an additional $675,995 in property taxes.

If both are approved, over the next five years LCG will be giving up more than $1.2 million in additional property taxes. Both projects were announced last year as moving forward with no mention of the need for potential restoration tax abatements to be financially viable. 

A new Professional Services Review committee. This five-member committee reviews and recommends approval of contracts with LCG. The amended chartered required a reconfiguration of the committee. Each council will nominate one member, both to serve through the end of 2023. The mayor-president has one appointment, and the other two seats are taken by the public works director and the utilities director.  

Separate Councils

An intergovernmental agreement to give city fire department equipment to parish fire protection. This agreement allows the parish to use 10 outdated radios that the city fire department isn’t using anymore. But determining how the parish is allowed to continue using city equipment given the split councils is an issue that will need to be addressed moving forward.

Donating adjudicated properties to Holy Family School. The two properties in question are at 139 S. Bienville St. and 213 S. Bienville St.

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Column: If we want to fix Lafayette’s roads, we must stop building new ones

Lafayette’s roads suck and both our city and parish budgets are in disarray. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about this problem. We just need to reprioritize maintaining the infrastructure we already have.

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Economic Outlook: Economist projects modest job growth for Acadiana in 2020

The gist: UL Economist Gary Wagner predicts around 1% job growth for Acadiana this year, a rate that would beat statewide projections but still lag behind the nation. Speaking at The Acadiana Advocate’s Economic Summit Wednesday, Wagner was joined by a panel of business leaders optimistic about the region’s economy going forward. 

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Over the last year, Lafayette’s MSA has seen some of the best job growth since 2013, according to Wagner. “This recent growth is consistent with the long-run average growth in the region,” he said. 

Oil and gas jobs are still down 40% since 2014. And Wagner said growth in oil and gas jobs is flat.

But healthcare has been picking up some of the slack. Wagner believes the industry will soon be the largest sector of the local economy. Oil and gas, once the largest industry in the area, is now fourth.

The biggest risk to his projections is a national recession. The U.S. economy is experiencing a record 126 consecutive months of growth, which is why there’s been a lot of talk about an inevitable recession, potentially soon. If a national recession does happen in 2020, Wagner said it would lower his projections for local job growth.

“We need to create more jobs with higher pay at a faster pace,” Wagner continued, chiming in on a discussion of his research into the causes of severe outmigration patterns in Louisiana. More than 90,000 residents have left the state over the last few years. 

Business leaders are generally optimistic. “With the fall of oil and gas, we should be going down,” said John Bordelon, CEO of Home Bank. “But we’re not because of the resiliency of our people.” 

Hotel/motel occupancy has been rebounding. While not fully recovered from 2014 highs, occupancy has been up in eight out of the last 11 months, according to Ben Berthelot, president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. He credited some of that growth to public investment in sports complexes in Broussard and Youngsville, which have attracted sporting events, and LCVC’s recruitment of events to this area.

There’s still hope for growth driven by Opportunity Zones. Opportunity Zones are low-income areas where special tax breaks have been designed to encourage investment in development and companies. One Acadiana President and CEO Troy Wayman cited Lafayette General Health’s fund for Oil Center investment as one example. And commercial Realtor Flo Meadows shared her belief that 2020 will be the year to watch for Opportunity Zone investments, citing $500 billion in available capital in the program nationwide. 

Oil execs blamed lawsuits and warned that a slow down in Texas could hurt local companies. Art Price, CFO of Badger Oil, linked an “all-time high” in the number of suits, which seek restitution for environmental damage from decades of drilling, to depressed drilling activity in the state. While the number of oil rigs has doubled nationally since 2015, Louisiana’s share has tanked and failed to recover. Most Louisiana activity is concentrated in the Haynesville Shale and deep waters. Price also warned that a recent bonanza in Texas’ Permian Basin could cool off, potentially hurting the many Lafayette companies that have deployed personnel and equipment there. The bottom line: Price projects 2020 to be more of the same stagnation as was seen in 2019 in Lafayette’s oil and gas sector.

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COLUMN: Lafayette’s economy is rising but not recovering what was lost

GDP, personal income, employment, retail and real estate sales are all increasing, but without oil and gas recovering our economy is trending towards mediocrity.

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New parish-level data highlights Lafayette’s continued economic struggles

The gist: For the first time ever, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has released parish-level gross domestic product data. Previously, local GDP data was only available for Lafayette’s metro area, which includes four neighboring parishes. The more precise geographic data gives better insight into the parish economy’s performance from 2001 to 2018. Not surprisingly, this new data further highlights Lafayette’s economic struggles.

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Lafayette fell behind Calcasieu in GDP rankings. In 2015 Lafayette Parish generated $14.1 billion in GDP, fourth in the state. But in 2016 the parish dipped to $13 billion and into fifth place, behind Calcasieu Parish. Lafayette posted $13.5 billion in GDP in 2018, still firmly behind Calcasieu’s $14.3 billion

The oil and gas industry has been cut in half. At the peak in 2014, oil and gas contributed $2.6 billion to parish GDP. In 2018, it’s languishing at $1.3 billion, which is lower than it was in 2001, the furthest back the parish-level GDP data goes. The decline has leveled off over the last couple of years, but it’s also showing no signs of recovery, despite the U.S. as a whole seeing record amounts of oil and gas production.

Construction is down almost 25%. In 2015, construction generated $618 million, but in 2018 posted $473 million in activity. This shouldn’t be surprising given the downturn in new housing construction and commercial construction permits.

Information industries are down about 35%. While there’s a lot of hope placed in information-based jobs powering the future of the Lafayette economy, these numbers tell a different tale. According to this new data, Lafayette’s information industries peaked at $495 million worth of GDP in 2007. They fell to $316 million 2012 and haven’t topped $331 million since. Despite some recent gains, the sector has not yet taken off.

It’s not all bad news. Some sectors are either showing recovery or never stopped growing. Manufacturing is making a comeback, posting $1.2 billion in 2018. Retail grew to $1.2 billion in 2018, tracking continued population increases over that same timeframe. Accommodation and food services has regained ground lost, recovering from a 2016 low of $487 million to hit $497.

Lafayette’s economy continues its transition from producing goods to providing services. This has been a national trend as well. In 2014, Lafayette produced $4.6 billion in goods and provided $9.7 billion in services. In 2018 that gap had widened. Goods produced fell to $3 billion while services provided rose to $10.4 billion.

Lafayette Parish dominates the MSA’s economy. The parish of Lafayette generates twice as much GDP as the four other parishes in its MSA (Acadia, Iberia, St. Martin and Vermilion) combined.

Why this matters: Now we know what we’re dealing with economically. With this new data in hand, we get a much clearer picture of what’s happening in the parish economy. It doesn’t vary dramatically from what we already knew, but it does clarify the scale of the area’s economic challenges. 

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Answering your questions about EDDs

Are they TIFs? How much are the taxes? Where are the districts?

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COLUMN: EDDs gone wild as trust in government tanks

Setting aside the philosophical argument about EDDs in general, the way these particular districts are designed is problematic.

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Council Preview: paying for pay raises, Girard Park rezoning, Coca-Cola redevelopment, and daiquiris delivered

Tuesday is the City-Parish Council members’ second-to-last meeting ever, and they’re not phoning it in. Here’s what on the agenda for Dec. 3. 

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Outgoing council approves pay raises, digging a deeper hole for the next

The gist: The City-Parish Council approved pay raises for the fire department, public employees, and the marshal’s office Tuesday. In total, these raises increase annual expenses for the city general fund by $3.7 million and the parish general fund by another $60,000. Without offsetting revenue gains or cuts to expenses, both the city and parish general funds are projected to go broke in the next few years.

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Get caught up quickly: Earlier this month the council approved $3.8 million in raises for the Lafayette Police Department. Combined with funds approved Tuesday for city employees, the city general fund is projected to have to tap into more than $18 million of its $45 million fund balance over the next fiscal year. If nothing else changes, that puts the city general fund on track to go broke by 2023, according to numbers provided by LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups. Parish general expenses will only increase $60,000, but that will reduce its projected fund balance by 60% and put it in the red by 2021.

No one questioned that these raises are warranted. While none of the votes to approve these raises were unanimous, not a single member of the public or council or the administration argued against the merits of giving them. Interim City Marshal C. Michael Hill went so far as to suggest that the pay increases for his deputies weren’t even raises. That’s because they hadn’t received pay increases in four years, yet their costs for expenses like health insurance premiums had gone up. So that means their take home pay has actually been decreasing over the last four years.

But there was no discussion about how to pay for these increased expenses. At the Nov. 5 meeting, Councilman Jared Bellard introduced a measure to eliminate all budgeted but vacant positions to free up money for raises for first responders, but the measure was deferred until the next meeting on Dec. 3. Approving these raises, the last consolidated council has set the next city and parish councils on a difficult path for their first term. 

And there still might be one more raise to come. The only dissenting voice on the matter of giving raises to LCG’s civil service employees was City Judge Doug Saloom. While he didn’t speak out against giving these raises, he instead argued that his 36 employees shouldn’t be left out just because they work under the judicial system. He was encouraged to submit an introductory resolution by today’s noon deadline to get onto the agenda for the next council meeting and indicated he planned to do so. Given the number of employees, though, any additional expenses incurred by giving these raises should be modest relative to the size of the financial challenges now facing the city’s budget.

What to watch for: Just how bloody next year’s budget cycle looks like for both the city and the parish. The parish has already cut budgets year after year, struggling to maintain even a $100,000 balance in its general fund. Now there will be even less room to maneuver with these increased expenses. The city was projected to tap into its general fund to maintain baseline operations for the next few years before the pay raises were added. Now the city general fund will be projected to fall below the 20% minimum fund balance set by LCG’s fiscal policy by 2021 and be completely zeroed out by 2023. Given that neither the parish nor city general fund balance can legally go below zero, more cuts are likely coming.

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Council Preview: six new taxing districts, a riverwalk, LUS controversy and more

The gist: Outgoing officials want to go out with a bang. Tuesday’s council meeting, one of the last of the year, is chockablock with major initiatives. On the table: the LUS inquiry, more pay raises and six new taxing districts, one of which would finance developing a river walk on the Vermilion.

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Robideaux opens the books on his LUS inquiry

At a special meeting of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will unpack the findings of his ongoing inquiry into alleged improper payments at LUS Fiber. Robideaux intimated in an email last week that he would unseal interviews with LUS and Fiber staffers conducted by LCG lawyers. LPUA meetings are held at 4:30 p.m inside city hall.

Get caught up, quickly. LUS and LUS Fiber have been under fire for a pair of potential violations of a state law that prohibits government dollars from propping up the municipal telecom. The most recent of the two, $8 million paid over eight years for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by Robideaux in July. In October, Robideaux announced he was removing LUS and Fiber’s interim directors, claiming the swap was made to “facilitate an internal review on behalf of the Public Service Commission,” and connected the review to the power outage monitoring payments. The PSC denies any involvement and has distanced itself from Robideaux’s attempts to link his efforts to its limited oversight. The controversy spurred terse exchanges between Robideaux and Councilman Jay Castille.

$3.7 million in new pay raises up for final adoption

Earlier this month, the council approved $3.8 million in new raises for city police; now it’s got three more raises to consider:

  • $2.6 million for Lafayette Fire Department
  • $1.1 million for all other LCG employees
  • $137,000 for the city marshal’s office

If all of these raises get approved and these increases aren’t offset elsewhere in the budget, the city’s formerly flush general fund will be depleted in very short order. A proposal to eliminate currently vacant positions from the budget, in a bid to free up dollars for the pay raises, is also up for final adoption.

Six new taxing districts proposed, including one for a riverwalk

Robideaux has proposed setting up six new economic development districts that would levy 1% sales and 2% hotel occupancy taxes in each tax increment financing district to pay for infrastructure meant to spur development. The ordinances include cooperative endeavor agreements with various public and private partners. One proposal would create a TIF district to finance the development of a riverwalk promenade along the Vermilion near the old Trappey’s canning plant. The measures are up for introduction and would not be up for final vote until December. Here’s the list:

  • Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District
    CEA with Downtown Development Authority
  • University Gateway Economic Development District
    CEA with Townfolk Inc., and Oasis Community Coterie
  • Trappey Economic Development District
    CEA with Trappey Riverfront Development LLC
  • Northway Economic Development District
    CEA with Pride Opportunity Development Developers
  • Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District
    CEA with Holy Rosary Redevelopment
  • Acadiana Mall Economic Development District
    No partner identified

EDDs are special taxing districts where additional taxes or fees are collected, and that money is then dedicated to projects benefiting those districts.

Girard Park Drive rezoning for new apartments

The rezoning will allow for the construction of a 140-unit apartment and office complex by Lafayette General. The rezoning has already received significant pushback from nearby neighbors who say a development of this size will hurt the character of their neighborhood. The zoning commission voted against recommending the changes.

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