Lafayette's drainage and road spending hasn't kept up with its growth

Over the last ten years, spending on virtually every government function has risen — except Public Works.

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More with less: Guillory lays out his year-one launch initiatives for Lafayette

The gist: From the jump, the new mayor-president is moving on his campaign promises. He’s got big plans to streamline consolidated government in the face of mounting financial pressure on both the city and parish budgets. Now sworn in, along with two brand new councils, Josh Guillory promises he can do more with less. 

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“We face a host of challenging conversations, and we are ready,” Guillory said Monday in his inauguration remarks. He framed 2020 as a pivotal year for Lafayette Parish, saying its “future as a family-friendly, business-friendly place hangs in the balance.”

It all starts with restructuring the Public Works Department. He proposed splitting transportation and drainage off from the agency into two separate departments, each with appointed directors of their own. Guillory argues that siloing the divisions will force focus on common sore spots for the public: traffic and stormwater management. Exactly how the reorganization will work in practice remains unclear, particularly when it comes to areas where the departments would overlap. Still, the proposal moved ahead and will be up for final adoption later this month. 

“I haven’t had time to study the details on how this might play out,” interim Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux, appointed this week, said in responding to questions from newly seated council members. The plan eliminates four currently vacant positions — two mechanic and two environmental inspectors — and would zero out the associate director position currently held by Terry Cordick, who will retire later this year. Guillory said the savings realized from removing those positions from the budget would free up, at minimum, $67,000 for other purposes despite the added expense of new directors. Here are the proposed new salaries: 

  • Transportation Director: $120,000
  • Drainage Director: $108,000
  • Public Works Director: $125,000

It does appear that Public Works could benefit from reorganization. Whether this particular proposal addresses the right problems within public works – including millions in infrastructure maintenance backlogs for drainage, roads and public buildings — is a separate question. One criticism of the proposal is that the most pressing issue facing the department is a lack of resources and manpower to address regular maintenance. Another is that the department is already top heavy and suffers from poor cooperation among its divisions. 

“If the system was what it should be, there wouldn’t be much of an outcry,” Pam Granger, Youngsville’s city engineer, tells The Current. She sits on a transition committee convened to review Public Works and recommend changes. That committee did not produce or review the proposal introduced Tuesday night. Councilwoman Liz Hebert tells The Current she supports the administration’s proposal, but adds that she believes constituents would like to see more “boots on the ground” to shave delays on service requests; Guillory insists that the restructuring will not worsen service. 

Work has also begun on reviewing the Unified Development Code. On Monday, Guillory doubled down on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” the UDC — which centralizes a number of zoning and building regulations into one place — with something more business friendly, promising to loosen regulations and tinker with processes critics say have slowed down permitting and increased costs for development. A 40-person committee, which includes many vocal critics of the UDC alongside campaign supporters of former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, Guillory’s opponent during the election, met in late December to start work. Alm-LaBar played a key role in developing the UDC while serving under the administration of Joey Durel. How much of the existing regulations remain will determine whether the UDC is truly replaced or merely tweaked. 

Guillory has also promised to pursue an independent audit of LUS. Linking the effort to the internal investigation carried out by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in the latter half of 2019, Guillory committed to further vetting LUS’s financial practices. Robideaux’s inquiry surfaced accusations that LUS made millions in improper payments to LUS Fiber in an attempt to prop up the municipal telecom. Just before leaving office, Robideaux suggested Fiber’s business model isn’t working. The results of the inquiry are now in the hands of the Public Service Commission, which has limited regulatory oversight over Fiber. 

Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles will remain interim directors of LUS and LUS Fiber. Robideaux appointed Duhon, then his chief administrative officer, and Miles to those positions to carry out the inquiry, at one time inaccurately claiming the leadership shakeup was linked to requests by the PSC. Questions have been raised about Duhon’s and Miles’s qualifications, along with the pay increases that accompanied the appointments. Robideaux’s rebutted concerns of LUS’s consulting engineer, retained as a bond-holder requirement, about the appointments by arguing that they were temporary and meant only for the purposes of the review. The review wrapped with the release of his report in December.

What to watch for: How the new administration works with the new councils. Robideaux was widely criticized for poor communication of his initiatives, which ultimately soured his relationship with the council and other parish elected officials.

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Council Preview: Three council meetings, two new infrastructure departments

The gist: Get stoked, readers. There are three council meetings Tuesday night. The 2018 charter amendments creating separate city and parish councils kick in this week with the first-ever meetings of the new bodies, sandwiching a joint meeting — also the first such convening. 

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A note about scheduling. Going forward, the two councils will meet on the same days, typically on the second and fourth Tuesdays. The parish council will convene first with the city council to follow. If a joint council is set, it meets in between. 

Joint council

Top of the agenda: Splitting up Public Works. This is the first big initiative from incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory. As proposed, it would break off two new departments — each with their own new director — in a significant makeover of the Public Works Department. In essence, the shakeup breaks off separate drainage and transportation departments from Public Works, leaving behind a smaller general operations department. This item is up for introduction only. 

Housekeeping: The joint council will also establish rules of order, formally appoint a clerk of council and vote in the professional services review committee — an advisory body that recommends contractors to the administration.

Not sure how the council split works? Check out this explainer.

Separate councils 

The city and parish councils will separately vote to appoint a new city-parish attorney. For the most part, the agendas look pretty similar because the councils are just getting started. But we do get a view on how things will get divided. 

Each council will appoint five-member zoning commissions. The amended charter creates separate zoning commissions for the parish and the city of Lafayette. The divided councils will thus make separate appointments. 

The parish council is appropriating $650,000 for a sewage grinder for the parish jail. The money had been budgeted for three years without being spent, so it expired. By state law, maintaining the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, which is in Downtown Lafayette, is a parish government responsibility. Jail sewage grinders is parish council territory.

The city council will take up some zoning changes and annexations. Again, these are introductory changes to the unified development code to accommodate a restaurant on S. College Road and annex an industrial property into the city, among other items. Under the previous consolidated configuration, council members outside the city of Lafayette would have also voted on these changes to land use and planning within the city. 

Got questions? Send a message to christiaan@thecurrentla.com.

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Exiting office, Robideaux casts doubt on LUS Fiber

The gist: LUS Fiber’s business model is broken, outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux argued in a presentation Tuesday that wrapped up his months-long investigation into the municipal telecom’s finances. Robideaux will self-report to state regulators millions, most of which is disputed, in overcharged or unwarranted payments he says were intended to prop up Fiber in violation of state law. 

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“It cannot continue the way that it’s structured,” Robideaux told the City-Parish Council in his final meeting as mayor-president this week. “To ignore the reality is not doing anyone a service.” 

He alleged another $2 million in “questionable” payments. This time for “dark fiber” services that he will report to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which has limited oversight over LUS Fiber. Robideaux claimed Fiber charged LUS more than three times what it billed private customers for the dark fiber connection, identifying the disparity as a theme in Fiber’s billing practices. 

All told, so far this year Robideaux has flagged roughly $10 million in payments. That’s on top of the $1.5 million in erroneous charges for unconnected sewer pump communication lines that were self-reported by then-LUS Director Terry Huval in 2018; Fiber reimbursed LUS with interest. The erroneous sewer pump payments led to a PSC audit, which in turn prompted Robideaux’s internal review. Earlier this year, Robideaux self-reported $8 million in payments for a Power Outage Monitoring System he said was overpriced and unnecessary. Huval, the architect of Fiber, disputes Robideaux’s central claims about POMS and vigorously defended the service in a press conference last month. The administration has not yet reported the $2 million in dark fiber services revealed this week. 

Robideaux went further and called into question Fiber’s business model. Robideaux’s narrative suggests that without LCG, Fiber’s biggest customer, the telecom would be insolvent. Fiber’s business model is hemmed in by the four corners of the Louisiana Fair Competition Act, which defines how Fiber can operate. Introducing his findings, Robideaux said he discovered a “pattern of revenue manipulation that is hard to ignore,” calling it “naive” to think the practices were intended as anything other than subsidies for Fiber, which if true would run afoul of the Fair Competition Act. The state law was enacted to prohibit a financial crutch for the telecom and protect the private companies that fought Fiber’s creation. Still, Robideaux insisted he wasn’t claiming that anyone connected had done anything illegal. 

Huval continues to defend the transactions. “As to the recent presentations, it should be noted that all LUS and LUS Fiber activities were brought to the City Administration, the City-Parish Council, and the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority for budgetary and overall approval,” Huval says in a written statement. He goes on to say that every LUS and LUS Fiber transaction complied with the Fair Competition Act, and was annually reviewed by the PSC.

Robideaux pointedly pulled punches on his accusations. Despite falling short of accusing the former director of breaking the law, he nevertheless attempted to paint a damning picture of the business practices overseen by Huval, who publicly opposed Robideaux’s shadowy bid to privatize management of LUS in 2018. Robideaux said the transactions hurt LUS ratepayers by increasing costs, but didn’t offer evidence of where it impacted utility customers directly. The last rate increase LUS sought was approved in 2016 to pay for a massive capital improvement package, which included a $120 million power plant that was later scrapped. The rate increases have not been rolled back. In closing, however, the mayor-president argued that Fiber was a net benefit for Lafayette, saying it was the city’s “calling card.”  

Fiber does hold tremendous debt. The system became cash positive a few years ago, but owes $105 million on bonded debt as of 2018 and another $27 million on loans from LUS. By law, LUS backstops Fiber’s debt to bondholders. Should Fiber default, which could come as a result of an illegal payment, LUS and its ratepayers would be on the hook. 

Robideaux’s allegations are now the future administration’s problem. While no timeline has been set out, Robideaux told the council he would deliver the new charges to the PSC before leaving office in early January. It’s the PSC’s discretion to pursue the issue any further. The commission’s audit of the sewer pump charges took about a year.  

The PSC has distanced itself from Robideaux’s investigation. Robideaux at one time said the PSC requested his review, which the PSC disputed in interviews with The Current. His story evolved to pin the origin of the inquiry on a conversation with a commissioner, who again disavowed any connection to the investigation. Public records indicate LCG was billed more than $35,500 for legal services related to the inquiry, conducted primarily by attorney Larry Marino. 

“I would like to have seen what he imagined were the next steps,” Councilwoman Liz Hebert says. Hebert has called for a “forensic” audit of the system, one with “no ties” to LCG, LUS or the mayor-president, to ferret out the controversy at Fiber and LUS. Critics have questioned the mayor-president’s motivation, characterizing the conduct of his inquiry as one-sided. Hebert says incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory intends to go forward with her suggestion. 

What to watch for: What 2020 holds. There’s some indication that Guillory will continue to look into the issue, but it remains unclear to what extent that will be a priority. Guillory will need to install new directors for both LUS and Fiber, now distinct departments, and make his own determination about the agency’s solvency and business plan. Robideaux has spent the better part of a year prosecuting LUS and Fiber, finding the sister utilities to be in disrepair, but has not offered up a way to fix them. 

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Council Preview: LUS/Fiber review, new taxing districts, corrections funding and pay raises

The gist: This is it — barring any special meetings — the last-ever meeting of the Lafayette City-Parish Council. Wasting no political opportunity, the agenda is chocked full of hot-button items. 

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Six new taxing districts. With the EDDs likely to be the biggest showdown of the bunch, the council will take up separate votes on these new sales and hotel taxes to raise money for development around the Northgate Mall, Acadiana Mall, the University Avenue corridor, and Downtown, as well as redevelopment projects at the Holy Rosary Institute and the former Trappey’s canning plant. Incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory just announced publicly opposition to the districts and urged the council to punt them to next year. Here’s an explainer on the ins and outs.

Robideaux’s report on LUS/Fiber. Outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will wrap up an eight-month investigation into “questionable” payments between consolidated government agencies and LUS Fiber. Along the way, Robideaux has suggested impropriety on the part of retired LUS Director Terry Huval, namely that millions were spent unlawfully under his watch to prop the municipal telecom up. The Louisiana Public Service Commission has distanced itself from the inquiry despite Robideaux’s insistence that it began with a PSC request. 

New funding agreement for city prisoners. The administration is moving money around — including selling a parking lot — to pay in part for a $1.25 million intergovernmental agreement to house city prisoners at the parish correctional center. Three separate ordinances cover a fund balance transfer, the parking lot sale and execution of the IGA, which stipulates that the money go to capital improvements at the jail. Note: This doesn’t address the funding dispute between the sheriff and parish government.

Restoring funding to the juvenile assessment center. Sheriff Mark Garber shuttered the juvenile assessment center, among other so-called diversion programs, citing budget problems. An ordinance by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who works under contract for LPSO and has taken criticism for a conflict of interest, would restore $600,000 to JAC by transferring some fund balance out of the juvenile detention center.

5% pay raises for City Court employees. This is the last of a batch of pay raises for public employees passed recently. It adds another $55,000 in personnel costs to the city budget, which is facing more and more financial pressure. The council has adopted millions in increased salaries for the police department and other public employees.

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Charter transition committee struggles through the stickiest part of consolidation

The gist: Nearly wrapped up after three months of biweekly meetings (the every other week kind), the committee charged with smoothing Lafayette’s transition to government by two councils wrestled with the essence of consolidation: cost allocation between city and parish funds for common services. Members lamented political tension to come. 

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Hold up. What’s cost allocation? Glad you asked. It’s basically how LCG splits the check between city and parish money. LCG has one public works department, one planning department, one finance department, etc. But the law requires that city funds go to city services and parish funds to parish services. About two dozen accounting methods are used to determine how much each general fund — a pool of unrestricted dollars — should pony up to run the government. 

“People’s salaries are charged all over the place,” LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups told the committee Tuesday. That about sums up the challenge. Cutting or adding cost from either budget — i.e. by either council — isn’t necessarily straightforward. 

The big elephant. That’s what Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux called cost allocation. Essentially, observers expect that unlocking allocation is a pandora’s box for dysfunction in consolidated government. Both city and parish funds are constrained now, and adjusting allocations between two bodies could be the theater of political conflict going forward.  

City taxpayers bear most of the cost of consolidation. Around 80% of shared costs are paid for by the city general fund. Since Mayor-President Joel Robideaux took office, the city’s share has increased $20 million because of changes in allocation. The parish share fell $9 million. 

“It was a noble gesture to create this new form of government,” District Attorney Keith Stutes said in closing remarks. Stutes probed whether the city and parish general funds could be mixed into one account but backed away from the recommendation, instead pleading for the incoming administration and councils to find common ground. “I have to say it’s disconcerting to see that it’s devolved into a combat,” he said of city-parish budget tension. In 2016, Stutes sued LCG for not adequately funding his office, a cost on parish government mandated by the state, but later dropped it.

The committee will produce a memo of questions and recommendations. The committee meetings have often been an education in existing problems in consolidation. The transition kicked off late in the year, convened in August by Robideaux after a protracted legal battle left the charter changes in limbo. It appears the new councils will likely need their own education on how to move forward, and will do so under intensifying financial pressure. The final committee meeting is Dec. 18.

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LPTFA steps in to pay for stopgap sewer fix Downtown

The gist: The board of a Lafayette public trust voted to front the cost of adding a new sewer pump Downtown as an intermediate fix to the district’s nagging sewer capacity problem. 

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Clogged up. Downtown and Lafayette’s urban core in general suffer from aging and inadequate sewer infrastructure that developers say limits their ability to add apartment complexes and townhouses. The problem is particularly acute Downtown. Longterm, LUS is working on a $7 million infrastructure upgrade that would fix the problem and then some. But that’s not fast enough to accommodate what’s believed to be immediate demand for Downtown living. 

LPTFA stepped up with a stop gap. The deal calls for the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority to spend just under $1 million to build a lift pump station on Grant Street property owned by LPTFA. LUS will reimburse the trust. 

“We feel it’s in the interest of Downtown for us to step up,” Rebekke Miller says. Miller is the program coordinator for LPTFA, which is in the process of building a 70-unit market rate project near Downtown.  

1,800 beds. That’s the total new capacity expected to be unlocked by the lift pump, according to LUS. A 2017 market study estimated Downtown could support up to 1,110 residential units. Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud says the station would be complete by December 2020, in time to accommodate several new developments, including the old federal courthouse. 

“I think you’re going to see another 200 units once [developers] see the capacity,” Begnaud says. Developers have been unable to secure financing for projects without commitments from LUS that the developments will have sewer facilities. Several smaller-scale developments are waiting in the wings behind the roughly 200 units of new housing currently underway. 

Why this matters. Downtown has been stuck in a development quagmire for years while advocates clamor to bring urban living to Lafayette. This year, employer announcements — Waitr and CGI — stoked optimism for a boom. But infrastructure limitations remain an obstacle. Downtown officials are pushing to create a new sales tax district to finance infrastructure improvements, which the City-Parish Council will vote on Dec. 17.

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Controversial political advocacy attracts new elected officials to fundraiser

The gist: Hardline conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana, which began life as a Facebook gadfly, attracted several incoming officials, including the mayor-president-elect, to a fundraiser and social gathering last week. 

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Five incoming councilmembers and the mayor-president-elect appeared. Michael Lunsford, Citizens’ executive director and the organization’s front man, says 60 attendees showed up for a social affair that spilled out of his office Downtown, in the refurbished Gordon Hotel building on Jefferson Street. The event was ticketed with a suggested donation of $150. Josh Guillory gave a short speech in a relatively brief appearance, according to Lunsford. During the campaign, Citizens called into question Guillory’s conservative bonafides and authenticity. 

Lunsford outlined a vision for growing the organization in remarks to supporters. He has added a part-time staffer to help with administration, and he intends to take on issues in neighboring parishes, with the long-term vision of replicating the Citizens “model” around the state. Lunsford himself does the bulk of the work, along with what he describes as a network of volunteers. He indicated some growing financial support, but declined to give figures. In 2018, Citizens took in $130,132, mostly from six unidentified contributors, according to a public tax filing provided by Lunsford. 

Council members say they were getting to know their constituents. Democratic Councilman Pat Lewis, an incumbent and the only incoming city councilman to appear, couched his interest as not one of support but of an open mind. Incoming parish Councilman John Guilbeau, a Republican, acknowledged the group’s controversy and lamented growing political strife in Lafayette Parish. Guilbeau described Citizens’ work as well-intentioned if overheated.

“Let’s stop this damn divisiveness,” Guilbeau says, conceding Citizens’ reputation. Guilbeau was one of four incoming parish council members who appeared. “But it goes both ways. Sometimes their rhetoric or information is a little sketchy. 

Citizens has been rebuked for divisiveness and misinformation, and at one time was the subject of a state ethics investigation. Sparked by a complaint filed anonymously to the board, the investigation sought out whether Citizens received contributions specifically to pay for a 2018 ad campaign overtly opposing a tax renewal for the parish library system and failed to disclose its donors. Citizens’ nonprofit structure doesn’t require releasing information about donors, but funds directly related to political activity would be subject to campaign finance disclosure. Lunsford’s group filed finance reports with the ethics board, claiming expenses related to that political campaign but listed itself as the only donor. The Current reported the investigation on Sept. 11 after obtaining court records related to it, which are typically confidential. The Louisiana Board of Ethics decided not to pursue the matter a month later and closed the file, saying in a letter addressed to Citizens’ attorney that the board had found “no evidence” that Citizens received money requiring campaign disclosures

“They reviewed the facts and they found us in compliance, which we knew we would be,” Lunsford says, calling the underlying allegations in the anonymous ethics complaint “a bunch of hooey.” 

Even council members who took fire from Citizens RSVP’d. Councilwoman Nanette Cook, who is currently on the consolidated council and beat out a candidate more closely aligned with Citizens for her incoming seat on the city council, says she wanted to hear what Guillory had to say — a rare opportunity for an audience with a busy public official. (Lunsford says Guillory rehashed campaign talking points. A request for comment from Guillory was not returned.) Cook and fellow incumbent councilmember Kevin Naquin, headed for the parish council, were at one point advertised as confirmed guests but were unable to attend. Both have taken shots from Citizens.

“We have a new government, and regardless of what they think of me, I’m ready to get on board and move this community forward,” Cook says. She anticipates blowback on her support for six economic development districts before the council Dec. 17. Lunsford will sit on a panel Wednesday evening organized in opposition to the districts. “We don’t really agree on a lot of things,” Cook says.

Why this matters. Citizens has been near the center of big local controversies, most prominently digging in on major tax propositions, often with misleading information, and stoking intolerant outrage on lightning-rod social issues. Now, with a shingle hung Downtown, it’s become a brick and mortar organization that attracts attention from local officials.

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UL’s watershed center engaged to complete Vermilion River dredging study; report expected in January

The gist: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has contracted UL’s Watershed Flood Center to model the effect of dredging the Vermilion River. This would complete a long-awaited study — at one time expected to be finished at year’s end — that will determine the benefits and risks of digging out years of accumulated mud and debris that have shallowed […]

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Special taxing districts for Downtown, Northside, Acadiana Mall and more move forward

The gist: Six new economic development districts passed introduction Tuesday by the City-Parish Council, in a rush of legislation on the council’s waning agenda for the year. The districts would levy new sales and hotel taxes to make improvements advocates say would spark economic activity in areas that need it. A vote on final adoption is set in December. 

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Here are the six districts: Downtown, University Gateway, Trappey Riverfront Development along the Vermilion River, Northway District anchored by Northgate Mall, Holy Rosary Institute and the Acadiana Mall.  

Taxes would be confined to district boundaries. The districts propose different tax rates and sunsets — varying between 1% and 2% sales and 1% and 2% hotel occupancy — but follow more or less the same structure. Council members — for the time being, from the City-Parish Council — will serve as each district’s governors, with the power to levy taxes, and will enter a cooperative endeavor agreement with private or public entities and the city of Lafayette. 

Half of the districts are on the northside. The area has long been in decline. Advocates argue consolidated government has not prioritized infrastructure and economic development needs on that side of town. Proponents view the districts as essential tools for bootstrapping prosperity. Rehabbing and redeveloping blighted property, streetscaping and land acquisition are on all three northside district lists. The Holy Rosary district prioritizes repairs of the historic school itself, construction of an African-American heritage museum and building a medical clinic. 

“We know we need economic development on the Northside,” said Ravis Martinez, part of a private development linked to the Northgate Mall district, in remarks Tuesday night. “When are we going to invest on the Northside of Lafayette? When are we going to take a hard look at ourselves, a hard look at the big box facilities and stores moving out? What are we going to do for the Northside of town?”  

Downtown advocates say they need the money. A lack of sewer capacity Downtown has choked the district’s ability to attract residential development. LUS rolled out a multimillion dollar sewer infrastructure upgrade intended to address the problem, but it won’t be complete for several years. Anita Begnaud, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority, tells The Current the district will give Downtown some independence in getting basic and necessary infrastructure in place.

“People want to develop here. The reality is nobody can get a bank to give them $1 million upfront to build a lift station,” Begnaud says. “Something’s got to be done to lift that hurdle.” 

The districts’ boundaries exclude registered voters. This is a common practice in drafting economic development districts. Without registered voters in the districts, the governing authority can levy taxes without a general election that would otherwise be required to be held for the voters within the districts. In Downtown’s case, drawing the district this way makes for a patchwork map that excludes addresses with registered voters associated. In some cases, people use commercial properties as their registered address, which then excludes those businesses from the district. 

“Almost every EDD is created on a greenfield site where there are not registered voters,” Begnaud says.

Critics take issue with the bundling of several districts at the tail end of an outgoing government. On top of the question of timing, there has been fierce ideological opposition to this financing approach, particularly among staunch conservatives who view the mechanism as a form of crony capitalism and a distortion of the free market. 

“This is all new in Lafayette, and it’s moving awfully fast,” said Councilman William Theriot, one of only two votes against establishing the districts, joined by fellow conservative council member Jared Bellard. Bellard and Theriot have both consistently opposed the financing strategy — often broadly referred to as tax increment financing districts or TIFs. Councilwoman Liz Hebert moved to defer the batch of ordinances carrying the districts until next year but was voted down by advocates urging immediate action. 

Lafayette has experimented with economic development districts before. The Target-anchored shopping center on Louisiana Avenue was built using a similar financing strategy. Proponents touted the development’s success as a proof of concept Tuesday night, arguing it should be put to good use within Lafayette’s urban core. 

What’s next? Should the districts pass final adoption in December, their governing boards — effectively the members of the City-Parish Council and, later, the City Council — would have to approve levying the proposed taxes. That means Dec. 17 isn’t necessarily the final stop. Council members could create the districts and approve the CEAs but punt levying the taxes to the City Council. Based on the conversation Tuesday, there was little appetite for waiting.

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Costly upgrades could spell retirement or conversion of LUS’s coal plant

The gist: For the first time in its history, Lafayette’s publicly owned utility opened its doors to public involvement in how it plans for the city’s power needs, a process called an integrated resource plan, or IRP. A big decision before LUS and its customer-owners: what to do with its coal-fired power plant. 

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We own a coal plant? Yes, you do. Well, technically you co-own it with CLECO. The plant, called Rodemacher 2, is located in central Louisiana and accounts for 265 megawatts of the LUS power portfolio. The plant was built in the 1980s and has taken on millions in upgrades to keep pace with regulatory changes. 

“I think the unit will be converted to natural gas or retired,” LUS Power Manager Jeff Stewart said at a Tuesday public hearing to a crowd of two dozen attendees, including several renewable energy and environmental advocates who have criticized the system’s lack of public involvement and continued investment in its coal plan. 

Consultants estimate $43 million in new upgrades are needed. The investment would update the aging coal plant to comply with federal environmental regulations governing water discharges and emissions. Michael Borgstadt of Burns and McDonnell, the consulting engineer guiding the IRP process, said new revisions to those rules were released in early November, which could affect the price tag. How much, exactly, is unknown, though he said costs shouldn’t vary greatly from those currently anticipated. 

LUS still owes $50 million on compliance investments made in 2012. The system issued bonds to pay for upgrades on Rodemacher needed to comply with emission standards issued by the Obama administration. At the time, critics called for the system to be retired or converted to cleaner-burning natural gas. LUS opted to stick with coal, but natural gas prices bottomed out in the fracking boom. The system now faces more costs to keep the unit in compliance while natural gas prices remain historically cheap.

“We have an opportunity to make decisions that have a positive impact,” said Laura McColm, a Lafayette resident and LUS customer, at the Tuesday hearing. McColm, like other attendees, urged LUS and its consultants to consider the costs associated with pollution and be wary of making big, risky investments that cost ratepayers for years. By and large, participants were upbeat about the chance to give feedback and engaged in a lively discussion with Stewart and the consultants on hand. 

A 2016 IRP resulted in plans to build new power generation that was later scuttled. LUS then took criticism for a lack of transparency in conducting the power plan — also led by Burns and McDonnell — which ultimately resulted in a $120 million plan to build new power supply powered by natural gas. Rates were raised 9% to pay for a $250 million bond sale that included the new power plants, but the City-Parish Council voted not to go forward with the plan. 

With power planning, LUS is shooting at a moving target. Market conditions in the power industry are in turmoil because of constant regulatory changes, new technologies and shifting fuel costs. The Obama- era Clean Power Plan likely would have forced the retirement of the coal plant, Stewart tells me, but current rules have eased the pressure on coal plants broadly. Still, coal is on its way out. 

“We’ve known for years that coal would be a target,” Stewart says. “[Rodemacher] could be a good retirement in terms of economics.” 

What to watch for: More opportunities for public input. Stewart expects another hearing by spring of next year. LUS has made available other channels to give feedback on the IRP. The plan is set to wrap up by summer of next year. It will be up to LUS and the City Council — which is replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority as LUS’s regulator — to decide what to do with the results. Ratepayers can submit feedback by email to IRPfeedback@lus.org. The deadline for public comment on this phase is December 15, 2019.

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Susan David wants you walking on eggshells. Well, crushing them, actually.

The Lafayette artist’s latest show, an installation of thousands of eggs, will end in a big, satisfying crunch.

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