Define the election. Write the talking points.

Community Agenda 2019

Author: Geoff Daily

Geoff Daily created FiberCorps and helped launch the Lafayette General Foundation. He now works as a launch strategist.

Robideaux gets OK to court tech investors via parish innovation trust

The gist: Trustees on the Lafayette Public Innovation Alliance authorized Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to begin talks with investors interested in leveraging federal Opportunity Zone tax benefits to attract money to tech startups. It’s not yet clear what role LPIA would play in this.

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Now legal in Louisiana, those Bird and Lime scooters still on hold in Lafayette

The gist: State law now makes electric scooters from companies like Bird legal in Louisiana, clearing up a limbo that paused their use in Lafayette. But the City-Parish Council voted Tuesday night to keep the scooters off Lafayette’s streets until new local rules and regulations are approved.

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The parish general fund has zero dollars; the city general fund has $46 million

The gist: LCG’s annual audit, presented this month to the City-Parish Council, revealed a worsening trend over the last fiscal year: The parish is out of money, while the city has a generous fund balance.

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The parish can’t afford to fix drainage without more money

Some want to claim that the only thing preventing us from fixing our flooding issues is a shift in priorities. But the reality is that the parish can’t afford to fix its drainage system without more revenue.

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Debate over how to spend library fund balance ends with a whimper

The gist: After a year of rancorous debate, the final fate of the library’s fund balance ended with nary a word spoken for or against it. No council discussion. No public comment. Just a silent 7-1 vote in favor of building a new northside library and expanding the North Regional Library in Carencro.

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Council rebuffs Robideaux’s second grab at library funds

The gist: The mayor-president could not flip the votes needed to put an $18 million library fund balance transfer before voters this fall. Meanwhile, a northside library took another step toward becoming a reality.

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Robideaux’s second attempt at transferring library funds collides with calls for new northside branch

The gist: On Tuesday, the council will take up the mayor-president’s renewed push to move $18 million out of the library’s fund balance to infrastructure needs. A transfer that large would likely prevent the addition of a new library east of the Evangeline Thruway.

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Get caught up, quickly: Earlier this year, Robideaux introduced a proposal to transfer $18 million of the library’s $26 million unassigned fund balance to roads, bridges and drainage. The council ultimately passed an amended ballot initiative, reducing the total to $10 million — $8 million for drainage and $2 million for parks and recreation. In an April email to council members, Robideaux took aim at furniture purchases for the library’s newest branch opening in Scott this month. Reprising attacks on the library’s financial management, he has asked the council to revise the transfer back to $18 million.

The library board voted to support a northside library Monday. At a special meeting, board members decided to request budget approval from the council to build a new library on the northside. The board will also ask the council to roll forward the two millages — keep the higher millage rate in place after assessed property values increase, essentially — that support the system to offset the revenues lost by a millage renewal that failed last year. In recent weeks, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux has ramped up calls for a library east of the Evangeline Thruway. Boudreaux has lobbied to use $8 million to put a new library in his district, arguing that his community has been left without ready access to library services and is cut off from the Downtown branch by the Evangeline Thruway. In the last week, he’s pounced on library Director Teresa Elberson, saying she’s ignored his requests for more services for several years. The Scott branch, for reference, cost $7.4 million to build.

“If they’re not willing to take the money and immediately dedicate it to a library purpose for an area that needs it and for a people and a community that deserves it, I cannot support them continuing to sit on this money to do pie in the sky projects,” Boudreaux said Sunday on his Community Hour radio show. “Build the damn library.”

As it stands, the library can afford to build a new library. The library currently has $26 million in unassigned fund balance. If the amended resolution stays the same and gets approved by the public, the library will still have $16 million remaining. The library also has about $18 million in bond authority that it could use with the council’s approval.

But it’s unclear if the library will be able to afford to operate the new library. Next year the library’s revenue is projected to be approximately $2 million less than this year’s budgeted expenses, and that’s without the added cost of operating a new library on the Northside. The library’s board developed four scenarios about the future of the library’s
finances, the best of which still projects the library’s fund balance going negative in seven years.

If Robideaux gets his way, there likely won’t be a northside library. If the $18 million he wants is moved, the library won’t have enough cash to pay for the proposed library. The library still has about $18 million in bond capacity left on $40 million authorized in 2002. Selling those bonds would increase the dedicated millage collected to pay back the debt. So even if technically the library has bonds to sell, it’s not clear if there’s enough political will on the council to approve their sale.

So how does this play out from here? Council members could be swayed by Robideaux’s call to change the rededication from $10 million to $18 million. They could also change that dollar amount to something else, or alter where that money will be moved to. Or they could stick with the existing plan and leave the proposition as is.

What to watch for: First, what happens Tuesday night. Second, what happens during the budget process as it relates to council support for funding of a northside library and allowing the library to roll forward its millages. Third, what happens if some version of Robideaux’s proposal makes it to voters this fall. And fourth, what happens during next year’s property assessment; any decline would have a major impact on the library’s revenue and financial health.

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VISION 2020: Tear down the parish jail and courthouse to make room for Lafayette’s future

To regain the ground our economy’s lost, we need to take bold swings at projects with catalytic potential. That potential exists in a waterfall hidden under the parish jail and courthouse.

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Accusing library of overspending, Robideaux asks council to increase fund balance transfer

The gist: In an email to council members last week, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux accused the library of overspending to furnish its new branch in Scott. He cited the expenditures in asking the council to consider increasing a $10 million fund transfer already set to appear on the ballot this fall.

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Get caught up, quickly: Earlier this year Robideaux introduced a proposal to transfer $18 million of the library’s $26 million unassigned fund balance to roads, bridges and drainage. The council ultimately passed an amended ballot initiative, reducing the total to $10 million — $8 million for drainage and $2 million for parks and recreation. The public is slated to vote on the transfer in October.

Robideaux previously accused the library of illegitimately hoarding money. Now, he’s saying it is spending too freely. In January, Robideaux inaccurately claimed that the library snuck a fourth tax — the so-called “ghost millage” — onto the ballot in 2002 that allowed it to secretly collect tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The heart of the attack was that the library’s $26 million fund balance wasn’t the result of sound fiscal management but fraud. Robideaux’s latest broadside adds profligacy to the bill of particulars. “Socking away taxpayer dollars into an unspent savings account for more than 16 years insults many taxpayers,” he says in the email. “And now spending it with zero regard to price is a further insult and jeopardizes the library’s future.”

The beef here is with some furniture the library bought for the new West Regional Library in Scott. Attached to the email is an inventory of whimsical furniture — for instance, a Ford Mustang booth seat — with price tags scrawled in the margins. Here’s the list of examples he shares:

FurniturePrice
Mustang Booth Seat$10,587.50
Booth Table$4,466.67
Airplane Lounge Chair$5,243.89
2x Lounge Chairs$2,401 each
Bench$1,356.98
Display$2,653.33
Toolbox Storage Unit$8,575
Icemaker$3,884

“Some of those numbers just jumped off the page so astronomically,” says Cydra Wingerter, LCG’s communications director. “In the mayor’s office, if we were spending that level of dollars, some very serious criticism would fall on us.”

These purchases were made through LCG’s purchasing department. The inventory attached was compiled by Purchasing and Property Management, an agency house within LCG’s Office of Finance and Management. Robideaux did not reach out to the library staff or board members to question them directly about their purchases before bringing his concerns up to the council. “We followed his rules,” says library board Vice Chair Andrew Duhon. “I’m not sure why he would take issue with it.”

Robideaux says he’s acting in the library’s best interest. He argues that leaving the library with a large fund balance “could be viewed as excessive by voters,” thereby putting the library’s next millage renewal at risk. He claims he’s shining a light on all this “solely to position [the library] for successful millage renewals.”

Library officials defend the purchases, saying you get what you pay for. Library Director Teresa Elberson argues the pricing is consistent with the costs for commercial furniture, which she says tends to be more expensive because of its durability. She also points out that many of the pieces Robideaux highlights are signature pieces for the transportation theme at the West Regional library, which is located just off I-10. The facility also has a charging station for electric vehicles, the first in the parish.

“He must be clueless as to how much things cost,” says Elberson. “He doesn’t understand the price of furniture in a commercial building that’s being used by the public. You just have to reach out to a hospital, a school, a public building, they’re in the same bind we are. They pay a premium price for this type of furniture.”

Wingerter says Robideaux has not sought price comparisons for the items he flagged.

Library officials say the imaginative pieces make for a more engaging environment and rebut Robideaux’s contention that cost played no factor in the furniture choices. Elberson says the purchases were within the building’s $625,000 budget for equipment, fixtures and furniture. “This is the cost of having a great library,” says Elberson. “When you’ve got a $5 million facility you’re going to put cheap crap in it?”

The new West Regional Library in Scott opens May 14, with a ribbon cutting on May 13. The library’s next millage renewal looms in 2021. If this one fails, the library’s budget will be cut to less than half what it is this year, forcing cutbacks to services, staffing and hours.

What to watch for: Whether Robideaux’s move has any legs. Even if he or a council member puts the ordinance up to make a change, it’s unclear that the votes would be there to pass it. Robideaux would have to flip three council members on an issue that seemed more or less resolved. This will all have to happen in the next few weeks if this money transfer is to stay on the October ballot.

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Lafayette metro area shrinking for second straight year, according to latest census estimates

The gist: The five-parish metro area is estimated to have plateaued or shrunk in the last two years, despite modest growth in Lafayette Parish, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Since peaking at 490,941 residents in 2016, the metropolitan statistical area essentially flatlined. Annual estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2018 show a slight decrease in population to 489,364. Lafayette’s MSA includes Lafayette, Vermilion, Iberia, St. Mary and Acadia parishes. Businesses considering moving to Lafayette typically look at the regional workforce.

Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish added residents, growing 3% since 2014 to 242,782.  

The city of Lafayette shrank in 2017 estimates. Data that year showed continued growth in surrounding municipalities like Broussard and Youngsville, albeit slowing, and a slight dip in the city of Lafayette’s population, which shrank less than half a percentage point from the previous year. City-level data for 2018 has not been released.

Parish growth may be related to cannibalizing other areas in the region. When you factor in these other numbers, the data suggest that Lafayette Parish’s growth could be coming at the expense of surrounding areas. In other words, while areas like Youngsville and Broussard may be growing, a large part of that growth could be residents leaving areas harder struck by the recent economic downturn, which doesn’t necessarily help the overall health of the region.

A caveat. These are estimates, and they are sometimes revised. It’s not uncommon for the census bureau to change population figures in subsequent years. The next formal census is in 2020. There’s currently a national political battle over whether a citizenship question will appear on the form.

Why this matters. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, one of the best ways to grow an economy is to add people. Overall growth for the region is key, as it would indicate a robust economy driven by increased output, not shifting internal demographics. Put simply: over the long term, the parish can’t succeed if Youngsville and Broussard are growing while Lafayette’s MSA and the city of Lafayette itself are shrinking.

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Lafayette retail sales have best start to the year ever for almost everyone

The gist: Retail sales in February point to what may be the strongest first quarter in parish history, pending data from March. With $952 million in combined sales between January and February, up from $889 million last year, the first two months of 2019 topped the previous all-time high of $950 million in 2015.

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Some cities aren’t recovering because they never stopped growing. Retail sales in Carencro, Scott and Youngsville keep rising, seemingly unaffected by the area’s economic downturn. Youngsville in particular saw January/February retail sales almost double from $28 million in 2014 — when the price of oil began to tank — to $55 million in 2018, while Carencro saw more modest growth from $29 million to $40 million and Scott grew from $27 million to $40 million.

The cities that did falter are making up lost ground. Retail sales in the city of Lafayette peaked at $676 million in January-February 2015 and haven’t fully recovered. Over those same months this year, sales totaled $662 million, an uptick from the $633 million posted in 2018. Broussard is still down from its peak of $96 million in January/February 2014 to $87 million this year, though that’s up from $78 million last year.

Unincorporated Lafayette is still climbing out of a deep hole. Retail sales in unincorporated Lafayette hit $70 million this January/February. While that’s up significantly from $58 million last year, it’s also down significantly from the peak of $93 million in 2014.

Some categories of retailers in the city of Lafayette are on the decline year-over-year. For example, machine shops fell from $1.9 million in January/February of 2018 to $1.4 million over the same timespan in 2019. And that’s a continuation of a trend, as machine shop sales peaked in 2014 at $4.2 million.  

But some categories of retailers in the city of Lafayette are on the rise year-over-year. For example, oilwell equipment sales rose from $8 million to $8.8 million, though any optimism should be tempered by the fact that this is still down from the peak in 2015 of $31 million.

These retail sales numbers are good news, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because the parish’s retail sales are up in January and February doesn’t mean a great year is guaranteed. Improving sales is one indicator and doesn’t necessarily mean the economy is turning around, particularly when set against historic losses, stagnant wages and a sluggish job market.

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Robideaux’s ‘mission accomplished’ optimism obscures a troubling reality

The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.

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