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.
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:
|Mustang Booth Seat||$10,587.50|
|Airplane Lounge Chair||$5,243.89|
|2x Lounge Chairs||$2,401 each|
|Toolbox Storage Unit||$8,575|
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lafayette’s retail sales are on the rise after a string of bad years. But we still have a long way to go.
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.
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.
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.
An improving unemployment rate offers an incomplete picture. Fewer people aren’t unemployed. Fewer people are working.
Assessing how well Robideaux delivered on the promises made in last year’s address.