Author: Christiaan Mader

The council has one more shot at deconsolidation this year

The gist: The council did not introduce or discuss any deconsolidation on Tuesday, but there’s still one more council meeting before the deadline to get a measure on the Dec. 8 ballot. Keep your eyes peeled on July 10.

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Wait. What do you mean by deconsolidation? Generally speaking, deconsolidation means separating the government functions of the parish and city of Lafayette. Right now, the city and parish have one council, one mayor-president and share several government agencies. That’s the way it’s been since the 1990s.

The catch is that only the city of Lafayette and the unincorporated parts of the parish are actually consolidated (as gadfly Andy Hebert points out routinely at council meetings). All the other municipalities in the parish opted out of consolidation. They have their own councils, their own mayors, their own government functions. Meanwhile, city-parish councilmen represent districts that include constituents in the other municipalities. That means, effectively, that a voter in Scott has impact on decisions that affect the city of Lafayette — say, how LUS operates or spends its money — but not vice versa. To a lot of folks, that’s just not fair, nor does it seem to be working out. Consolidation was conceived to fix the parish budget. The parish budget is still broke.

Now, with parish general fund sniffing the bottom and voters in the parish and city pursuing different priorities, a renewed urgency to overhaul consolidation has arisen. The failure of this year’s library tax renewal exposed that value divide clearly: City voters voted to renew the taxes. Parish voters voted against it.

More than likely, there won’t be a push for a complete divorce of the two sides of Lafayette government, but rather the creation of separate councils. I guess it’s more of a trial separation. In that scenario, Lafayette would obtain its own city council and more control over its assets and finances, but there would remain one mayor-president for the parish, and the two jurisdictions would continue to share services like the Public Works Department.

Seems like a no brainer to me! Well, maybe. There are a lot of thorny and unmapped paths to walk through to get this done. First, what would the maps look like? Redistricting of any sort would tend to get politically dicey. Second, does this actually do anything to fix the unincorporated parish budget? Not really. Deconsolidation dodges that problem altogether. To wit, Councilman Theriot, who does not support the idea of creating separate city and parish councils: “If we were to split, the unincorporated parish would be nothing,” he says. Third, there’s an argument that simply adding a new council for the city of Lafayette doesn’t go far enough. Many of the convolutions would remain problematic, particularly in how the priorities of the mayor-president align with the often competing interests of the parish and city he represents. Maybe a full divorce is what we really need.

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Creating a new fire district for the unincorporated parish is another proxy battle about consolidated government

The gist: The council moved one step closer toward creating a new fire district for unincorporated areas of Lafayette Parish. If the boundaries are adopted at the next council meeting, that would likely mean a new millage appearing on the ballot to fund fire services in the area.

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Some background: Unincorporated residents don’t have a fire department, so the parish contracts with municipal fire departments to respond to fires in rural Lafayette Parish. Consolidated government has reduced payments to municipal fire departments to rein in spending out of the parish’s nearly depleted general fund. That arrangement has begun to stress the budgets of municipal fire departments; the cost to the municipal fire departments reportedly exceeds the revenue taken in by those contracts. Scott’s Fire Department reportedly saw payments drop from roughly $150,000 annually to $50,000. Councilman Kevin Naquin warns that the fire rating for the unincorporated parish could go up if no action is taken to shore up the shoddy service in the district. That would lead to higher fire insurance premiums for the area, figures Naquin says would greatly outstrip the cost of new taxes in the district.

We learned that Kevin Naquin’s house is worth $275,000. To illustrate the cost discrepancy, Naquin put his insurance plan on the council chamber’s projector screen. Naquin lives in unincorporated Lafayette. Insurance premiums for his home, valued at $275,000, would increase by $4,000 if the unincorporated area fire rating goes from its current Class 5 to Class 7. No millage has been officially suggested just yet. But Naquin floated that a 7-mill property tax funding the new district would cost him $150 a year.

“Spend your money on insurance and you choose to do nothing,” Naquin said. “Ask the insurance company to put your house [fire] out.”

What if the parish disappeared? Councilman William Theriot, ever skeptical of council money grabs, prodded the introductory fire district ordinance for its lack of details and for falling short of solving the problem. Theriot argued that as annexation continues, the newly created fire district would shrink, thereby continuing to diminish the tax base for the fire district. For the second time this year, Theriot proposed a solution that’s not new but is nonetheless radical: divvy up the unincorporated parish and absorb it into each municipality. That’s a concept championed by former Mayor Joey Durel during his tenure.

“This seems to be the only viable solution,” Theriot told me in an phone interview. His idea is provisional, though he believes it’s got legs. That’s one idea to fix the unincorporated parish: Make it disappear.

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Sheriff Garber explained his sales tax to the City-Parish Council

The gist: At Tuesday’s council meeting, Sheriff Mark Garber gave an overview and explanation of a new parishwide sales tax he intends to put on the Dec. 8 ballot. As proposed, the tax would generate $38 million annually to fund new law enforcement personnel both for the sheriff’s office and for the Lafayette Police Department. Garber was summoned to the council amid criticism that he had failed to apprise the body of his plans.

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“We weren’t ready to come to you before,” Garber told the council. He complained that news of his plan got out faster than he intended — by way of Claire Taylor at The Daily Advertiser — forcing him to play catch up with a speeding newscycle. That explanation appears to have mollified several frustrated councilmen who had complained that Garber left them out of the loop on a decision that impacts the city police department, a body they oversee. Garber turned over draft ballot language to the council at the meeting, asking the councilmen not to share it with the media, given that the proposal isn’t finalized. It’s not clear what parts in the ballot aren’t full baked. The Current obtained a copy of the ballot language — a public record, by way of its transmittal to the council — which you can view here.  Garber indicated that a final version of the measure will be ready this summer, with a major campaign to follow from a PAC created to support the effort.

So what’s in the plan? As written, Garber’s proposal would create a permanent three quarters of a cent sales tax assessed parishwide: that is everywhere in the parish, inclusive of all municipalities. Garber wants to add 45 more deputies, pay down $37 million in debt and accumulate enough dollars to create a one-year operating reserve fund for the sheriff’s office. He’d accomplish that with about $23 million in annual revenue generated by the tax. The sheriff indicated that he would roll back an existing property tax that funds his office after he reaches that fund balance. However, the ballot measure does not hold him legally to that promise.

Sales tax collected in the city of Lafayette, half of the three-quarter cent rate, would go to the Lafayette Police Department, generating an estimated $15 million each year. That would nearly double LPD’s roughly $20 million annual budget.

“Not everybody understands my power as the sheriff to go before the voters unilaterally,” Garber said in his address. “I’m not asking the council tonight to adopt any resolution or to vote in favor of it. I’m here before the council because all of you represent voters in this parish. Voters who are my voters.”

What to watch for: Whether the administration or the council backs the sheriff’s plan. Thus far, Garber has not won official support from the city side of the deal. Mayor Joel Robideaux has not indicated, up or down, his position on the sales tax. He has not responded to requests for comment, although a sheriff’s spokesman confirmed Robideaux and the sheriff discussed the tax last week. The Lafayette Police Association, the local police union, supports Garber’s measure. The group’s tactics recently angered some city-parish councilmen who accused the union of using scare tactics to get the sheriff’s tax passed.

Councilman Jay Castille, who dismissed the union’s claims that the department is understaffed, said after the meeting last night that Garber’s presentation answered many but not all of his concerns. The specifics of the intergovernmental agreement have yet to be hammered out. That would require council approval.

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Two years and waiting: a look inside the drainage action plan

Homeowners continue to await drainage work promised in a tax rededication passed last year. The work is not a fix; it’s a Bandaid.

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And just like that, the moratorium lifts: Artmosphere is now a bar

▸ The gist: It’s been a long and strange journey, but Artmosphere’s regulatory limbo is now over. The council voted to allow the popular Downtown venue to operate as a bar rather than a restaurant.

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▸ Some background: Artmosphere, in a sense, is the poster child for Downtown’s tribulations associated with a 15-year-old moratorium on new bars in the district. The venue has operated for years on a restaurant’s liquor license, running afoul of regulations that require a restaurant’s food to make up more than 50 percent of its sales. Recently, Downtown officials and advocates have lobbied for an end to the moratorium, which they say created a monopoly for existing bars and grossly distorted the real estate market.

▸ “Have we now lifted the moratorium on bars Downtown?” Councilman William Theriot asked Mayor Joel Robideaux from across the council’s crescent desk. “Certainly, I would say the moratorium was lifted at a previous council meeting,” the mayor replied, indicating the official end of the practice was the creation of the conditional use permit itself.

▸ Can you spell C-U-P? In his interrogative with the mayor, Theriot referred to the new permit class as a “cup,” as in something you drink out of. Opening a new bar Downtown? Now you need to go to the city and get a cup.

▸ What to watch for: Yes, this is the visible end of the moratorium, but it’s hardly an opening of the flood gates. Artmosphere’s case continues to illustrate the effort required to crack the still-standing limitations on new bar licenses Downtown. Councilman Pat Lewis, who in May voted against putting the permit up for a final vote, amended the permit to stipulate that, among other things, Artmosphere must serve food when operating and must operate five days a week.

“I congratulate her for being persistent. She was very persistent,” Lewis said at the meeting. “You can ask the owner. I made it very difficult for her. It’s not just a rubber stamp.”

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An impassioned appeal failed to stop a controversial car dealership project in a flood-prone neighborhood 

▸ The gist: Residents in a neighborhood hard hit in the 2016 floods appealed the approval of plats for a new car dealership parking lot that cuts deep into a mostly residential area. Despite an emotional plea, the City-Parish Council denied the appeal.

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▸ A little background: The site in question was rezoned in January, on recommendation of the city’s planning department, from agricultural to commercial heavy to allow the project to go forward. Tuesday’s appeal targeted approval of the project’s preliminary and final plats. Exasperated, residents of the Canberra neighborhood described the long shot appeal as their last stand.

▸ What’s the big deal? Canberra residents report that stormwaters have risen in the last decade or so due to rapid development, in particular several car dealerships that have popped up along south Johnston Street and South City Parkway. The primary concern is that a new parking lot — reportedly seven acres of new concrete — will overmatch the area’s drainage coulee, which residents say can’t handle any more runoff. It is odd that the development got the green light given the widespread recognition of the relationship between expanding concrete and Lafayette’s drainage problems. Beyond drainage, they say the lot will be a nuisance, an eyesore and will tank property values. “Will you buy my house?” a resident shouted at the council from the back row.

▸ A stunning silence: After hearing testimony from enraged residents for an hour, the council sat in a loud silence. A vote requires a motion, and reluctance to make one in the face of seething anger settled on the councilmen. Councilman William Theriot awkwardly broke the spell, set the vote in motion and cast the only vote in support of the appeal. Residents applauded him and castigated Liz Hebert, their district representative.

▸ What to watch for: This still isn’t quite over. Developer Fabre Realty will next produce a drainage impact analysis to be approved by the city. A wrinkle in this story is that the developer faces new drainage regulations that require the lot to reduce runoff rate in the area by 15 percent of the pre-development rate, not an easy feat for seven acres of concrete. Earlier this year, the developer told The Advocate that he didn’t yet know how much it would cost to comply with the new drainage regs. The lot represents a test of the city’s regulatory approach to solving the ongoing drainage crisis.

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Robideaux sought to avoid a ‘public spectacle’ in selecting an old federal courthouse developer

▸ The gist: Last week, The Advocate broke the news that Mayor Joel Robideaux chose a team led by developer Jim Poche to redevelop the long-vacant old federal courthouse Downtown. Robideaux’s choice and the decision to forego a public process raised some eyebrows, but other applicants and stakeholders say there was nothing unseemly about the decision. ▸ Some background: Five teams applied for the project, […]

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Population growth has slowed around Acadiana for the first time in years

The gist: Annual estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show across-the-board declines in growth speed, and shrinking populations, in and around Lafayette from 2016-2017.

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Lafayette is the biggest loser. The city lost 581 residents in the estimate. That’s not a horrendous bleed, but against the backdrop of rapid growth since 2010, the contraction is concerning. Lafayette’s population estimate is 126,848. It’s worth noting that these numbers aren’t confirmed and won’t be until the 2020 census is released. The numbers could be wrong in either direction.

Broussard, Youngsville and Carencro continued to add residents but at a slower pace. Youngsville’s overall growth since the 2010 census is an astronomical 65 percent. Broussard added 502 residents. Carencro added 192. Here is how the changes shake down:

Area Population (Est.) Change
Broussard 12,042 +502
Carencro 8,973 +192
Duson 1,780 -2
Lafayette 126,848 -581
Scott 8,768 -47
Youngsville 13,424 +479
Unincorporated Lafayette 70,650 +196
Lafayette Parish 242,485 -739
Lafayette MSA 491,558 -88

What it all means: Leafing through the figures, the inflection year appears to be 2015, just after the price of oil collapsed. Lafayette’s Metropolitan Statistical Area grew rapidly over the first half of this decade — in 2013 Acadia, Iberia and Vermilion parishes joined the existing Lafayette/St. Martin MSA — while many other MSAs across the country suffered in the wake of the mortgage crisis of 2008. The region’s economy was buoyed by a strong oil market.

However, as the most recent figures show, Lafayette’s MSA posted a small decline to 491,558. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a rounding error. But the overall trend remains troubling.

As noted in The Advertiser, this certainly fuels concern that the citizens of Lafayette could lose control over their self-determination. As more people move into other municipalities or unincorporated portions of the parish, Lafayette’s power on the City-Parish Council will diminish. This is information that will arm the #Lafayexit battle cry.

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LCAT’s Michael Lunsford is going full-time at Citizens for a New Louisiana

The gist: Lunsford is leaving his day job selling web services for Comit Developers to run nascent, conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana full-time as its executive director. He said in an email his new gig starts June 1.

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A little background Lunsford is more visibly associated with the anti-tax Facebook group Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. LCAT has been extremely active in local election cycles, successfully killing recent tax measures. Citizens for a New Louisiana is a brick and mortar outgrowth of that effort.

The new organization is a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that can receive donations without disclosing its donors. That anonymous pipeline of cash is often called “dark money.” Citizens spent $21,500 on a campaign to fight the renewal of a property tax that paid a portion of the parish library system’s revenue.

Why does this matter? Curiously, Lunsford has tended to downplay his leadership at LCAT. “I’m an unpaid volunteer,” he told me in April. He’s characterized himself as a part-time soldier, “the researcher,” a mere servant to the cause. Now he’s entrenched full-time. That indicates sustained revenue and sustained activity in Lafayette politics and — potentially — a wider geographic reach.

Lunsford’s advocacy has made a big impact since LCAT went live. LCAT successfully killed last year’s school tax — with the help of another war-chest of dark money — despite considerable weight thrown behind the tax by One Acadiana. Since then, there’s arisen no equal and opposite force to LCAT’s advocacy.

In the next election cycle, Lafayette Parish will deliberate three new taxes: Two property taxes for the parish courthouse and jail proposed by the City-Parish Council and a parishwide sales tax put forth by Sheriff Mark Garber to fund new patrol hires. 

Garber intends to raise $300,000 to fund a campaign for the law enforcement sales tax, and he’s hired political consultants The Picard Group to assist in the effort. Beyond the councilmen lobbying for the property tax efforts, no other champion for those measures has emerged.

While it’s unclear exactly what Citizens for a New Louisiana’s operational scope is, it’s a safe bet the organization will mobilize against at least some of these efforts..

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Gov. Edwards launches a statewide watershed management council

The gist: The governor created a statewide office to spearhead watershed management called the Council on Watershed Management. He signed an executive order creating the council at a meeting of the Acadiana Planning Commission, which he touted as an example of regional coordination in water management.

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Coordination is the new black. There’s a growing recognition among policy makers that flood and stormwater management can’t be handled at the local level. Water has a tendency to go wherever it wants, flaunting city and parish boundaries. The state council will, ostensibly, follow a model of cross-jurisdictional coordination similar to that employed by APC.

APC took a regional partnership approach in administering a $25 million FEMA grant awarded to the Acadiana region in the wake of the 2016 floods.

Dredge the Vermilion. Dredge up conflict. The governor’s announcement paralleled news that Congress has authorized the dredging of the Vermilion River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested emergency funding to speed along federal revenue that otherwise could take years to materialize.

Dredging the Vermilion is precisely the sort of project that could rile up division among neighboring jurisdictions. Homeowners and elected officials in Lafayette have clamored for the river to be dredged, arguing that a shallow riverbed worsened the floods of 2016. Combined with Lafayette Consolidated Government’s drainage maintenance program, dredging would tend to move more water downstream faster.

“The Vermilion River, to me, is at capacity,” Vermilion Parish President Kevin Sagrera told The Advocate. “When the water comes down, it’s got to come over the banks and go out into residential areas.”

Study first. Do no harm. That should be the more important lesson learned from APC’s approach. If anything, you could criticize the Acadiana effort for being too conservative. Most of the projects are retention and detention ponds that hold water rather than move it around.

Before further work is done, APC has moved to study watershed impact first.

“I’d like to have the science before we do anything else, so we know what we’re doing,” APC CEO Monique Boulet told me.

The commission has prioritized a plan to deploy 230 gauges across regional waterways. Just weeks ago, UL Lafayette created a flood research center. Researchers with the center helped develop APC’s gauge deployment strategy.

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Marshal Pope fails in bid to suppress emails in his criminal trial

The gist: Embattled City Marshal Brian Pope argued that emails which led to his indictment on seven felony charges were not public record and should not be admitted as evidence in his trial for those crimes. The district court denied Pope’s motion to suppress the emails. They will be used in his trial.

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Some background: The emails in question were obtained by defunct news outlet The Independent in a public records dispute that arose during the 2015 sheriff’s election. That year, Pope staged an official marshal’s press conference to attack Mark Garber, then a candidate for Lafayette Parish sheriff. The email records later proved the press conference was scripted by Joe Castille, a shadowy political consultant who ran the campaign of Garber’s opponent, Chad Leger.

Pope himself did not give up all the emails requested. The Independent made parallel requests to the marshal’s office and to Lafayette Consolidated Government, which maintains the marshal’s email server. LCG’s cache of emails included records of Castille’s involvement in the press conference, indicating that Pope had illegally deleted or omitted the emails in his own production of records.

Pope’s attorneys argued that LCG unlawfully seized the records.

District Judge Jules Edwards III, who presided over the civil dispute between The Independent and Pope, held Pope in contempt for failing to turn over the records, ruling that the emails were indeed public record. Edwards later threw Pope in jail for violating his probation.

"They’re public records because Judge Edwards says they are," responded prosecutor Alan Haney. “You can’t suppress a public record. He wants you to use the law to hide what he was doing.” Clearly, District Judge David Smith agreed with him.

The trial will likely take place in Lafayette Parish. At least that’s the early indication. Pope’s attorneys sought to move the trial out of the area on the grounds that Pope couldn’t get a fair trial in light of “mountainous” negative press.

Again, ADA Haney: "If they can try [serial killer] Derrick Todd Lee in East Baton Rouge Parish, they can try Brian Pope in Lafayette Parish.”

Haney argued Pope brought the press on himself by virtue of his own misbehavior. Most stories in the mountain of clippings, he said, were factual.

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Waitr affirms commitment to Lafayette after acquisition by a Texas billionaire

The gist: The news broke this week that app-based food delivery service Waitr was acquired by a Texas billionaire in a $308 million deal that will take the company public. CEO Chris Meaux says the company intends to expand operations in Louisiana and will continue to call Lafayette and Lake Charles home.

Meaux tells The Current..."We're committed to Lake Charles and Lafayette; that's where the bulk of our employee base is from a corporate perspective. We're committed to Louisiana. This is gonna remain our home and that was an important factor in this deal." Waitr's management staff will remain the same, with Meaux continuing to serve as CEO. He also will be the newly public company's board chairman.

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You can breathe now: In the immediate wake of the acquisition, it wasn’t particularly clear where Waitr would end up. It's now owned by Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, the CEO of seafood restaurant chain Landry's. Fertitta also owns the Golden Nugget Casino in Lake Charles.

Waitr is a major success story for Acadiana and Lake Charles. Losing its growing payroll and employment would have been a huge blow for a down and out Lafayette economy. Waitr employs between 400 and 500 people in Acadiana, including drivers, and accounts for roughly $25 million in annual payroll in Louisiana, according to a rough estimate from Meaux.

What to watch for: The acquisition will accelerate Waitr’s growth rapidly. Before the deal, Waitr was projected to double its revenue next year to $250 million. Capital infusion of this scale will put Waitr in the driver’s seat nationally in the app-based food delivery space in secondary markets. Meaux says the company will add three or four new cities to its portfolio per month and begin buying up smaller competitors. The company will continue to emphasize small and mid-size cities in its growth and marketing strategy. Meaux refers to Waitr as a "small town company."

Locally, Meaux says the company is expanding beyond its offices at The Daily Advertiser building on Bertrand Drive. One possible landing spot is the Lemoine building Downtown. Meaux indicates the company is close to deciding on a site, but would not disclose where it would end up. Meaux says the company will continue to hire more software engineers, customer service reps and restaurant support staff going forward. Lafayette is Waitr's software engineering hub.

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