▸ The gist: Come Dec. 31, 2020, the old federal courthouse on Jefferson Street will be the site of a 68-unit apartment complex and 25,500 square feet of commercial space, along with a pool, clubhouse and common areas.
▸ That’s the substantial completion date (certified by the architect) laid out in the terms of an ordinance scheduled for introduction to the City-Parish Council Sept. 18 with final adoption on Oct. 16. If the development team, Place de Lafayette and Weinstein Nelson Developers — doesn’t meet that deadline, it will face penalties of $10,000 a month, according to the ordinance, and even stiffer penalties, $25,000 per month, if it does not commence construction at the 2-acre site by July 1 of 2019.
▸ Pending council approval, the long-vacant eyesore will be sold to the development group for the appraised price of $1.4 million, money that will be deposited into an escrow account and used by the city for environmental remediation and sewer upgrades. According to The Advocate, developers must cover the first $75,000 for removal of asbestos and any other hazardous materials, and they have the right to terminate the agreement if the city does not pay costs exceeding that amount. Lafayette Utilities System is planning $7 million in sewer upgrades over the next several years, which should address some of the pressing issues of sewer capacity Downtown, but the ordinance calls for the city to reimburse developers for any city-approved sewer work they might need to undertake.
▸ The impact: The project, which includes the adjoining old police department building on Jefferson Street and former AOC offices on E. Main Street, is of immense importance to redevelopment efforts Downtown. It will bring the first major residential component to the city’s core, a potential catalyst for more residential construction in the coming years. It’s also a signature accomplishment for City-Parish President Joel Robideaux, who is poised to break through the impasse that has plagued earlier attempts at bringing the spaces back into commerce — namely pushback from a well-connected courthouse crowd insistent on building a new parish courthouse at the site — with a speedy process that put the mayor himself in charge of choosing the development team. Work at the Jefferson Street site will be underway for all to see just as Robideaux is campaigning for re-election to his second term.
▸ The gist: In other words, Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope is not going back to jail — not yet anyway. And he gets two more years to serve a 2-year-old community service order.
▸ Here’s what happened: District Judge Jules Edwards apologized to Pope in court Wednesday morning. The judge explained that he had mistakenly continued to treat the case — which started out in 2015 as a civil public records lawsuit filed against Pope by The Independent (RIP) — as a civil matter rather than the criminal one it became after Pope defied the judge’s order to turn the records over to the paper. At that time, Edwards held the marshal in criminal contempt of court, an unprecedented finding in a public records case that included more than $100,000 in attorneys fees, court costs and penalties, 30 days in jail (with all but seven suspended) and 173 hours of community service (one for every day Pope withheld the records).
▸ When Pope failed to perform the community service (after repeated second chances), Edwards sent him to jail in February, where he served seven days before appealing the sentence. Earlier this month, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal remanded the case to Edwards to correct the mistake, noting community service can’t be a penalty for criminal contempt of court. So Edwards simply reimposed the original 30-day sentence and suspended it, giving Pope credit for time served. Community service is now a condition of his unsupervised probation — he has to teach 173 hours of public records courses or pick up trash for that many hours — and Pope has another two years to complete it. If he doesn’t, it’s back to the slammer.
▸ Pope’s legal woes are far from over, although he can breathe a sigh of relief for a short spell. The city marshal’s criminal trial on charges of malfeasance in office and perjury, a total of seven counts stemming from the public records dispute, begins Sept. 24.
Some have raised concern that extracting only LUS’s electric division for private management could destabilize the system’s other utilities: wastewater and water. The three systems have entangled debt and rate structures that are messy and risky to pull apart.
▸ The gist: Last week Jeff Jenkins, one of Bernhard Capital Partners’ founders, told The Current the company’s plans for LUS include making it part of what will ultimately be a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette. This week, his partner Jim Bernhard confirms that Lafayette has out-of-state competition for that proposed corporate headquarters, a city Bernhard says has an “advantage” over Lafayette because that contemplated transaction has not leaked to the press.
▸ Jim Bernhard points his finger at an unnamed “disgruntled employee.” (On July 13, The Current broke the story of the Robideaux administration’s plans to entertain an offer from BCP to manage LUS’s electric division.) “They have a utility we are attracted to, we looked at the university there and also because of the oil and gas industry there — we felt it was a place we could attract people to work for a long period of time,” Bernhard says. “We thought Lafayette was a good opportunity, and we thought it was the right place, but the other place has an advantage because we were not prepared to go public with our plans in Lafayette when some disgruntled employee leaked the information. But we decided we were not going to let a disgruntled person derail our plans, so we regrouped.”
▸ Bernhard says $15 billion will be invested in the new venture. Last week Jenkins would only say the company was in talks with “multiple” entities like LUS across the South, but Bernhard is now being more specific, saying the company hopes to acquire or take over management of 30 to 40 power companies in “mostly in small cities. They range in different sizes from $1 billion to $100 million.” While an early BCP assessment valued LUS’s electric division just north of $525 million, a comprehensive appraisal of the city-owned utility is still underway, and terms of a potential agreement could change.
▸ It’s unlikely this deal will fly in Lafayette, says one former LUS employee. Andrew Duhon, who retired from LUS in January 2017 after nearly 30 years — most recently as customer and support services manager — understands why LUS is so enticing. “We’re really like the star in the public power arena,” he says. Duhon, however, can’t imagine any scenario under which Lafayette stakeholders give up control of their 120-year-old utility system. He says since the early 1940s, when LUS was in desperate need of upgrades, poorly managed and in jeopardy of being taken over, the public has shown a willingness to reinvest. “Despite a much bleaker picture for the utility back then versus the model system we have today, the people of Lafayette decided to keep [the] system. They issued bonds for new generating facilities and developed a model bond ordinance that, among other things, required a well-managed system run by professionals,” recalls Duhon, who also is a CPA. “The citizens of Lafayette in the ’40s knew what they had — control of their economic destiny through ownership of their utility,” he adds. “Public power consistently beats investor-owned utilities in rates, in reliability, in service, in accessibility.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Riegel
As part of its plan to take over management of LUS’s electric division, Bernhard Capital Partners is presenting a vision of creating a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette.
▸ The gist: Longtime Cajundome Director Greg Davis didn’t think it was right that he hold onto his $160,000 a year job while having to deliver news to seven other employees that their positions were being eliminated. So the 63-year-old, who has worked for the Cajundome since it opened in 1985 — 25 years as director — announced he’ll retire at the end of October, three years earlier than he’d planned.
▸ His second in command, Pam Deville, was elevated to director, a move that alone will cut $120,000 in salary expenses. In all, Davis’ plan will save the struggling venue half a million dollars, a figure that represents a 13 percent reduction from the $3.8 million it spent on payroll (including taxes and benefits) in 2018. The venue’s annual operating budget is $7.8 million.
The drastic steps were prompted by a $400,000 deficit for the current fiscal year, a number that for the first time exceeds the operating subsidy paid by Lafayette Consolidated Government to prop up the entertainment venue. That subsidy, $392,000, was cut to $376,000 for next fiscal year; in recent years it was as much as $500,000, and at times — like at the height of the IceGators’ popularity— has been zero (another $100,000 LCG provides annually can’t be used for operations). Davis says a study by LEDA concluded that the the subsidy averaged $358,000 annually for the first 30 years of the Cajundome’s existence.
“I’d been looking at this [financial situation] for at least four to six months,” Davis says, explaining that he was holding out hope a couple more concerts would be booked in the current year. That didn’t happen. And concerts are where the money is.
▸ It’s the economy, stupid. While Lafayette’s economy may be showing signs of stabilization in the aftermath of the hit it took from low oil prices and resulting job losses, concert promoters seem to think we’re still suffering too much to take a chance on us, Davis suggests. “I think we’re going to overcome it. We’re going to book more concerts. You book the right concert in this market, and it will do well.” Case in point: the Garth Brooks series, which accounted for five of the eight concerts the Cajundome hosted last fiscal year. Brooks alone sent $217,400 directly to the Cajundome’s bottom line from ticket and suite sales, concessions and merchandise. Eight concerts, which is the Cajundome’s average, were enough to finish last year in the black, the six booked this fiscal year were not. In past years, the venue has hosted as many as 10-12 concerts.
Davis is leaving the Cajundome in competent hands and in great physical condition, the result of a $21 million renovation completed in December 2016. That capital improvement (and the construction of the convention center) was funded by a bond sale backed by the Lafayette Parish hotel-motel tax the state rebates to the venue, money that can be used for capital improvements and maintenance but not for operations.
▸ What’s next for Davis? The community activist and lifelong North Lafayette resident plans to continue devoting much of his attention to education reform, specifically reversing the mindset that black children, especially poor black children, are incapable of excelling academically. He’s on the board of TM Landry College Prep, which is moving from Breaux Bridge to Lafayette in September, taking over the former call center at Northgate Mall. “TM Landry is … a walking contradiction to that belief,” Davis says. “It’s going to provide outstanding examples of black children who are achieving at high academic levels to overcome this myth that because of the color of your skin and because you are poor, that you are not capable of high achievement.”
Much of the City-Parish Council, already disillusioned that it was left in the dark during negotiations, appears unified in opposition to LUS’s electrical division changing hands.
Robideaux administration considering sale of LUS’s electric division Mayor in ongoing discussions with private equity firm to purchase or manage the division
Talks between the Robideaux administration and Bernhard Capital Partners over the potential purchase of Lafayette Utilities System have been ongoing since at least the beginning of the year.
The gist: It’s now clear that Mark Knight is the big fish prosecutors want in the Knight Oil Tools racketeering case. As our May reporting indicated was likely to happen, court records now reveal that former Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Kinch pleaded guilty in late June to one count of public bribery and one count of corrupt influencing in […]
[UPDATE: Chris Williams has resigned. Read The Advertiser’s June 8 story here.] ▸ The gist: SMILE Community Action Agency remains in a state of utter chaos. With Williams at the helm, the agency last year lost $14 million in federal funding to operate Head Start and Early Head Start learning classes in Iberia, Lafayette and St. Martin parishes. A cloud of controversy […]
▸ The gist: Former Stabil Drill executive Chris Russo suffered a major setback a few days ago when a Texas appellate panel shot down his attempt to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid turning over a cache of emails to Superior Energy Services. Superior sued Russo and another top executive in 2016 for tens of millions of dollars, alleging the duo masterminded an elaborate scheme to defraud the company.
Marshal Pope’s defense strategy in jeopardy A U.S. district court ruling could ultimately hamper a key legal maneuver in the Lafayette city marshal's pending criminal trial.
A U.S. district court ruling could ultimately hamper a key legal strategy in Marshal Brian Pope’s pending criminal trial.