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.

Council votes to put library funds transfer on ballot, but not without changes or rancour

The gist: The City-Parish Council voted Tuesday night to call an election this fall to redirect $10 million of the library’s $26 million fund balance to unidentified infrastructure and parks and rec projects.

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That’s less than originally proposed — and with an allocation for parks. An amendment offered by Councilman Jay Castille moved $2 million to parks and $8 million to drainage. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s original proposal, floated back in January, was $18 million for roads, bridges and drainage only. Robideaux argued then that such a large redirection would still leave the library with more than enough money to continue operations, a position the administration maintained in council discussion. They mayor’s argument is based on projections that the library’s property tax revenue will grow by more than 100% over the next 11 years, despite that it grew by only about 1% the last two years. Voters will weigh in on the October ballot.

The council voted 6-2 in favor of this amended resolution. Voting no were William Theriot and Jared Bellard, two of the original resolution’s co-authors.

“Robideaux’s proposal was done without library input, so how could he know what we need?” Andrew Duhon, the library’s vice chair, asked the council. He argued that the original proposal didn’t account for potential lower projections for property tax revenue growth, noting that property tax revenue flatlined in the 1980s.

Opponents of the amended proposal say including parks and rec could kill it at the ballot box. Theriot and Bellard made the case that parishwide voters are more worried about flooding than parks and recreation. “Why would we want to invest money in other things if people can’t protect their homes?” Theriot asked.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux is stumping for a library east of I-49.  He supported lowering the amount of money transferred to pay for it. No library exists east of the Evangeline Thruway, he said, lamenting that kids from those neighborhoods, low income areas with poor rates of literacy, need to bike across the highway to get to a library. “We want a library like everybody else,” he said.  

Duhon believes the library could pay for a new library on the Northside, even if some of its fund balance is shifted, and that Boudreaux makes a compelling case for it. But it’s not clear the library can afford to staff and operate a new facility. The library is projected to collect about $2 million less in tax revenue than it costs to operate the system’s existing facilities next year. To maintain current operations it’s going to have to dip into its fund balance. If property tax revenue flatlines or declines, it won’t be long before it will be forced to cut its existing budget by 20% or more. In other words, there’s money to build a library but there may not be money to staff it. The library board has opted not to recommend “rolling forward” — collecting at its highest possible rate — one of its remaining two property taxes, a decision that could reduce projected income by as much as $800,000 annually.

We have to pass the transfer to know how the money’s going to be spent. The administration has not detailed which projects the redirected  dollars would go to. Also unknown is the mix of drainage, roads and bridge improvements. Same goes for the parks and rec allocation.

$10 million may sound like a lot of money, but it’s dwarfed by project needs. Public Works reports a backlog of $97 million in road projects alone on top of tens of millions of dollars in drainage maintenance work. A comprehensive overhaul of the drainage system, which some believe is the only real solution, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

One big takeaway: The council doesn’t seem to agree on the same set of facts. At no point during last night’s discussion did it seem like anyone had the same understanding of the library’s financial situation, or the potential long-term impact of transferring some of its surplus for other needs.

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Proposal to rededicate the library’s fund balance back on the council’s agenda tonight

The gist: The debate over if and how to rededicate the library’s $26 million fund balance will heat back up at tonight’s council meeting.

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Get caught up, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposed rededicating $18 million to roads, bridges and drainage back in January, justifying the move, in part, by suggesting the library had been collecting a secret tax — the so-called ghost millage. Spooked and confused by the ghost millage revelations, council members deferred the proposal until they could have a public discussion about these allegations. The resolution is back on the agenda to call for a public vote on May 4.  

It’s too late to call a May 4 election. At a minimum, that part of the resolution will need to change. According to council chair Jared Bellard, a co-author of the resolution, LCG’s legal counsel is drafting language to make that modification, and he still hopes to pass a resolution Tuesday calling for an election.

We haven’t had any public discussion on this issue. Technically, the council did have a public discussion of the library’s financial situation in March, but it fell short of the robust conversation promised back in January. The item fell on a packed agenda, appearing alongside the controversy around mayoral aide Marcus Bruno and debate about seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the charter errors. Besides a few minutes of remarks from the library’s chair, Nora Stelly, and a member of the public, Lydia Romero, the issue got little air time. No member of the council added anything or asked any questions.

Meanwhile, the library’s board is meeting April 15. Amid all this uncertainty, the library board is trying to navigate its normal budgeting process. At this meeting, the board will be deciding on the library’s capital requirements moving forward. Part of that discussion will be figuring out just how much rededication of the fund balance library officials would support for other needs in the parish.

No one’s talking to each other. “I haven’t heard from the library at all,” Bellard tells me, adding he was unaware that the library was meeting to have this discussion next week. At the same time, Andrew Duhon, vice chair of the library’s board, says that none of the Robideaux resolution’s co-authors (Bellard, William Theriot, and Kevin Naquin) have approached the library board to better understand the institution’s finances. Duhon confirms that Robideaux sat down with the library board about his proposed resolution but not until after announcing his plan publicly.

Councilman Bruce Conque is working on a compromise proposal. When Robideaux’s proposal first came up, Conque suggested a $10 million rededication as a compromise, an idea that got informal support from library board members. That alternative option is still being worked on.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux wants to see a new library built on the Northside. He’s giving a press conference at 3 p.m. today in the large conference room at City Hall where he’ll be speaking about the need to build a new library in his district to make library services more accessible to his constituents, which include some of Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods. But if $18 million is taken from the library’s fund balance, it’s unlikely it would be able to build another library any time soon.

What to watch for: the fate of the library’s remaining millages. Yet another vote on the library’s finances looms on the horizon. Library officials have to renew another of their now two remaining millages by 2022. If the renewal fails, library revenue will drop by more than half — including the failed renewal in 2018 — from $13.9 million to around $6.5 million. If that were to happen, expect to see our libraries open fewer hours while offering less service.

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When up is down in Lafayette’s retail sector

Lafayette’s retail sales are on the rise after a string of bad years. But we still have a long way to go.

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Crypteaux absent, Opportunity Zones top of mind for second innovation trust meeting

The gist: Still in its infancy, the Lafayette Public Innovation Alliance, created by the mayor-president to kickstart Lafayette’s pivot to technology, is working to find its way. Opportunity Zones could figure prominently in the trust’s work.

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Get caught up, quickly: LPIA is a public trust created by M-P Joel Robideaux and voted into existence by the City-Parish Council last summer to nurture the growth of software development and innovation in Lafayette Parish. It had its first meeting in January and held its second last month. The mayor-president has embraced the technology sector as an economic driver for the region. The LPIA is his vehicle for pursuing these aspirations.

LPIA aims to drive adoption and use of federal Opportunity Zones. Opportunity Zones are part of a new federal tax incentive program that provides preferential capital gains tax treatment to money invested in “Opportunity Funds” that invest in these zones. Lafayette’s zones include the Oil Center, Downtown and portions of the University Avenue corridor. It’s not clear yet what specific role LPIA will take in achieving the goal, but at a minimum Robideaux wants the organization to be a champion for these efforts.

Lafayette (sort of) has an innovation district now. While there’s been no formal proclamation, Robideaux has positioned LPIA to create an innovation district that overlays those opportunity zones. An innovation district is an urban development strategy to regenerate underperforming areas to be more desirable to innovation companies and workers. The thinking here is to stack incentives and programming by adding an innovation district over the same footprint. It’s not clear yet what this designation actually changes other than reinforcing the intent of Robideaux’s focus on catalyzing growth in these areas through technology.

No discussion of Crypteaux. Since its inception, the LPIA has been connected to Crypteaux, the mayor-president’s pitch to create a municipal cryptocurrency for Lafayette and transform our community into a living lab for blockchain technologies. Crypteaux figured heavily into the LPIA’s first meeting agenda, which included an at-length discussion of using cryptocurrency as an investment vehicle of sorts to fund LPIA ambitions. Notably, Crypteaux was not part of the March meeting’s agenda.

No plans for staffing, yet. There was at one time talk of a potential agreement with UL (Ramesh Kolluru, UL’s VP of Research, sits on the LPIA) to provide staffing until LPIA could pay for its own. But members decided to postpone discussing a staffing plan until funding is secured.

Starting work on a mission. One major discussion item was working to define LPIA’s mission in a way that helps the public really understand what the organization does. LPIA is eyeing an event this fall to tie together a variety of other innovation and technology-centric events like the Opportunity Machine’s Innovation Conference and CajunCodeFest.

Why this matters? Lafayette has to replace the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost in its economy since 2014. Technology and software businesses offer some of the greatest potential to do that. Given that LPIA has set out to help attract and grow those businesses, there’s a lot riding on the success of this venture.

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LED is helping CGI tempt Baton Rouge talent to Lafayette

The gist: On Saturday, March 30, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Louisiana Economic Development is hosting a career fair in Baton Rouge to help CGI fill the 400 new jobs the consulting giant is creating in Lafayette.

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Those rosy unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story

An improving unemployment rate offers an incomplete picture. Fewer people aren’t unemployed. Fewer people are working.

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The 2018 ‘Robideaux Report’ Report Card

Assessing how well Robideaux delivered on the promises made in last year’s address.

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What happens when a Walmart dies?

Walmart’s decision shines a light on serious issues with no easy answers.

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Retail and home sales up, unemployment down, but there’s more to this story

Recent headlines indicate 2018 might be the year our economy started recovering. But there’s ample evidence that any optimism should be guarded given the situation our economy’s in.

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Lafayette ranks near bottom on nationwide city performance index

The gist: Lafayette lags far behind other American cities in job creation and retention and economic growth. The city ranked 196 out of 200 cities measured in the Best-Performing Cities index created by the Milken Institute, a California-based think tank.

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Waitr’s preliminary 2018 financials show explosive growth after acquisitions

The gist: Preliminary 2018 financials show incredible growth both in Waitr’s existing operations and those associated with Bite Squad, a midwestern competitor the food delivery company bought last year.

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Lafayette General dives into Opportunity Funds

The gist: Lafayette General Health will use a new federal tax advantage program, created by the 2017 tax overhaul, to develop near the Oil Center and invest in healthcare startups. The hospital announced the move at an information session about federal Opportunity Funds, held Wednesday.

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Opportunity Funds are a new form of investment vehicle that provides tax advantages meant to spur investment in Opportunity Zones.

Opportunity Zones are low-income census tracts that were nominated by local governments, selected by governors, and approved by the federal government last summer.

Lafayette’s Opportunity Zones include the Oil Center, UL’s main campus, downtown, and the University Avenue corridor from downtown up past I-10 almost to Carencro.

LGH has already been investing in real estate. Over the last few years, through the Lafayette General Foundation LGH has established a Real Estate Investment Fund (REIF), which acquires, finances, or develops real estate that LGH leases.

Now it has plans for developing Hospital Drive. Big plans, in fact, including a 3 to 5 story medical office building that will be a new home for the Cancer Center of Acadiana and LGH’s neuroscience work. This development will also include housing for LGH’s medical residents and retail space.

The project could breath new life into the Oil Center. The Oil Center could have been River Ranch, LGH CEO David Callecod told conference-goers, because it’s a safe walkable community with retail and restaurants; it just never had much housing. The Hospital Drive development project will create a live/work/play experience for LGH’s medical residents, with the longview of encouraging them to start their practices in Lafayette once they graduate medical school.

Opportunity Funds are ideal for enabling LGH’s aspirations. While LGH was already investing in real estate, because the Oil Center was selected as an Opportunity Zone LGH can create an Opportunity Fund to provide additional tax advantages to recruit investors to help fund the development project.

And real estate may only be the beginning. Opportunity Funds can also be used to invest in companies. For some time, LGH has been investing in health care startups through its Healthcare Innovation Fund. And it’s currently looking at making an investment in a company that may be relocating its headquarters to the Oil Center. If that company is successful, then in the future LGH’s Opportunity Fund could provide additional investment capital to fuel further growth of this as-of-yet-unnamed startup.

LGH is already reaping rewards for investing in startups. At the event, Cian Robinson, executive director of innovation, research, and real estate investments at LGH, announced that the fund had its first successful exit. Start-up HealthLoop was purchased last fall for $200 million. LGH invested around $1.5 million into the company, clearing $4 million in just a few years with the sale. LGH is currently raising funds for its second Health Innovation Fund.

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