The gist: Closing rec centers on Lafayette’s Northside and laying off three dozen parks employees has been justified as a budgetary necessity. But the four rec centers targeted operate at the smallest deficits in the parks department’s portfolio.
$80,000 was the total cost to run the four centers in 2019. Combined, they generated just under $32,000 in revenue — mostly from 58 rentals at the Heymann Park recreation center — and operated at a net loss of $48,000. For context, the Robichaux Center, where protestors disrupted Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s most recent town hall, ran a $57,500 deficit, according to budget records provided by Lafayette Consolidated Government.
Most of the savings in Guillory’s cuts come from 37 parks layoffs. Altogether, the staffing cuts would save $1.7 million in recurring expenses. It’s not clear which of those positions were directly related to the rec center operations. Guillory eliminated the parks police department (five positions for $389,000), six rec center coordinators ($272,000) and four janitors ($138,000). Coordinators and janitors are the minimum staff necessary to keep the rec centers open. Other layoffs are in the tennis and golf programs. Several unfilled positions are included in the total staffing reduction.
Guillory’s parks budget outsources grass cutting through his Geaux Mow program. The total budget to contract year-round lawn care for the system’s 35 parks and three golf courses is $300,000. Ten maintenance positions for groundskeeping are eliminated in the budget, which ran a total payroll of at least $380,000.
City Council members are pushing to take control of the funding altogether. An ordinance introduced Tuesday would put city park dollars under the sole legislative authority of the City Council. More than 90% of parks funding comes from city tax dollars, a share that will grow in Guillory’s proposed budget, which allocates only $40,000 from the parish general fund. Council members have attempted to restore all the cuts by ordinance, a move that was blocked to some uproar by the Parish Council.
The Parish Council has offered up a $200,000 stop-gap plan. Pulling funds already rededicated from the library system’s reserves, the parish council plan — which has received an endorsement from the mayor-president — would give plenty of cushion for the rec centers to operate through October 2021, the end of the next fiscal year. That would include bringing back some positions, but fall well short of those laid off, as critics point out, during a pandemic and economic crisis.
Guillory has spun the narrative to say he’s fighting to keep the rec centers open. But this is a discretionary budget decision and one that he’s consistently defended as an inevitability. Prior attempts to justify the cuts have cited them as underused and argued that the remaining Northside centers are “more than adequate.” In a pamphlet circulated to council members July 21, the administration notes that $890,000 is available in unspent CREATE funds, responding to a series of questions in a FAQ format. Could those funds be used to cover the rec center costs? “Possibly. This is a philosophical and technical question that requires discussion,” the administration responds in the pamphlet.
The gist: Two well-known community advocates have quit a task force convened by the mayor-president to tackle healthcare disparities suffered by Lafayette’s Black Community. Their departures, announced Friday, parallel sustained outrage at the mayor-president’s decision to shutter four recreation centers on Lafayette’s predominantly Black Northside.
Tina Shelvin Bingham, a community organizer who leads the McComb-Veazey Community Coterie and runs community development for Habitat for Humanity, explicitly names the rec center closures as a reason for her exit, saying in an email obtained by The Current that the administration’s actions have “eroded the trust of North Lafayette residents.”
The other confirmed resignation is Tonya Bolden-Ball, who serves as the program manager for the Center for Minority Excellence at SLCC. In an email informing the task force of her resignation, Bolden-Ball notes a lack of “alignment” with the task force’s vision, but offers no specific grievance. Reached by phone, she declined to comment further.
Bingham’s email, however, is pointed and blunt, describing a lack of organization on the task force and a lack of input afforded its sprawling membership, which includes council members, clergy, neighborhood advocates and healthcare professionals.
“We have struggled to gain equity and inclusion in the planning and mobilizing of testing sites and resources in [City Council] Districts 1 & 5,” Bingham writes. “This compounds the need for working group leaders and members to gain clarity and a clear understanding of our role on this taskforce and decision making. We cannot build a plane if the parts are in a locked closet.”
Bingham was not available for further comment.
Her complaint is echoed by other task force members who say the group has struggled to define its goals and take flight since launching in April. The task force has met several times over the last few months and has coordinated additional Covid-19 testing in Black neighborhoods. LCG announced recently that it would continue offering no-cost testing at the Northgate Mall through Aug. 12, attributing that service to the work of the health equity task force.
The group was launched by Mayor-President Josh Guillory in April, as data began to show that Black Louisianans were suffering the worst of the pandemic, particularly in New Orleans. A statewide task force was launched earlier that month. To date, Black residents account for 40% of Covid-19 fatalities in Lafayette Parish and 33% of reported cases, but make up around 25% of the overall population, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
To run the local task force, Guillory appointed Carlos Harvin, LCG chief of minority affairs. Harvin has come under fire recently, suffering open shots at his credibility from other Black community leaders. Many view his appointment as barter for supporting Josh Guillory after the Democrat’s own campaign, which was announced late and raised virtually no money, sputtered in the primary. Asked about that during an intense interview with former Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who has spared few words for Harvin, the pastor clarified that he did not endorse Guillory, without directly addressing the question of political compensation. Harvin stands to receive a $10,000 raise in LCG’s recently proposed budget.
“The leaders of the Black community knew that he was never there for us,” NAACP chapter President Marja Broussard says of Harvin. Broussard served on the health equity task force but dropped out after growing frustrated with its lack of direction. A member of the communications committee, she says they had yet to formulate a mission for that committee by the time she left around the beginning of June. Broussard has loudly decried Guillory’s rec center decision and calls his overtures toward the Black community — including his support for moving the statue of Confederate General Alfred Mouton — an “illusion.”
Defending the task force and its leader’s record, LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle says Harvin has worked “day and night” to expand testing access to Black neighborhoods, launching 10 testing sites with community partners.
“There is so much anger and misunderstanding right now, instead of communication and collaboration,” Angelle says. “Now is the time to open more dialogue, the time to come up with solutions to the new challenges we have been facing.”
Broussard says testing is not enough. Echoing some sentiments in Bingham’s parting email, she argues the task force falls well short of what she and others understood to be its purpose: tackling the underlying social and economic disparities entangled in the Black community’s historically poor health outcomes.
Bingham and Bolden-Ball are community leaders, the real “boots on the ground,” Broussard says, and their departure signals the task force’s shortcomings.
Lafayette’s recently separated councils fell into the early makings of a constitutional impasse, only months into the new form of government.
The gist: A conservative who ran on reining in government spending, Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory zeroed out millions in city spending in his first budget proposal since taking office. Unveiled Tuesday night, the budget calls for arts, recreation and community development programming to take the brunt of the austerity cuts, while what Guillory calls core government services remain largely intact.
The operating budget would be reduced by $30 million, with most cuts hitting the city’s general fund. The deep cuts are set against a predicted $23 million decline in revenues for the next fiscal year. Last year’s consolidated budget topped $630 million, including the utility system, which is roughly half of the budget all by itself. Guillory’s proposed budget, introduced to the councils Tuesday night, frames up a $600 million consolidated budget. Lafayette’s city general fund hovers around $100 million in appropriations annually.
Covid-19 figures prominently in the budget messaging, but many of the cuts target services Guillory views as secondary to the functions of government. Other savings were realized by ordinances passed to pause scheduled pay raises for the city police, fire and LCG employees. Those raises are a big part of the ongoing operating deficit Guillory inherited.
“We have to ask the difficult questions and be willing to freshly examine old assumptions,” Guillory writes in his budget message. “By honestly examining all aspects of our operations and diligently seeking better ways to do things, we can develop a real culture of innovation in Lafayette Consolidated Government.”
As a candidate, Guillory promised to do more with less. And that messaging was consistent before the pandemic blew up municipal budgets across the country and dried up tax revenues. He signed a pledge with conservative backers during his run, promising not to raise taxes and to prioritize infrastructure and public safety as core government priorities, rhetoric he’s stuck to since taking office. His budget accomplishes that and then some. Many of the notable cuts are to programs heavily criticized by the hardline conservatives that backed Guillory.
Those savings may come at great cost to families who rely on programs facing steep cuts. Guillory cut city general fund subsidies to the Parks and Recreation budget by 37%, including closures to four rec centers on the Northside and layoffs to three dozen employees. That’s on top of layoffs at the Lafayette Science Museum, Heymann Performing Arts Center and other cultural programs that sparked fierce backlash earlier this summer. Going into Tuesday’s council meeting, the rec center decision surfaced outrage among Black leaders blindsided by the late-week announcement and subsequent scrambles to explain the decision. Guillory faced a long chain of rebuke from community members, egged on by jeers from the auditorium, in a marathon meeting that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. Many called Guillory to find cuts in his own office, including sacking Guillory’s chief of minority affairs, Carlos Harvin, a former member of the Senior Pastoral Alliance who’s reportedly lost what little credibility he had with many Black leaders.
“You should be ashamed,” NAACP chapter President Marja Broussard said through a mask, turning her glare directly to the seated mayor-president. Broussard and others have characterized Guillory’s cuts as disparate in their treatment of services cherished by the Black community. His decision to back moving a Confederate statue in Downtown Lafayette brought him little to no capital with aggrieved Black leaders, who nonetheless chastised the administration for failing to understand the role the rec centers play. Around 2 a.m., the city council voted unanimously to support moving the statue, an emotional coda to the meeting.
Guillory defended the rec cuts by sticking with a justification he made in the days after the announcement spurred rallies and a widely circulated petition. “The facts are one-third of our rec centers still proudly serve the Northside,” he said coolly in the heat of public comment. Again, the auditorium groaned and Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin gaveled for order. All four rec centers are in neighborhoods with relatively low rates of vehicle ownership. The administration’s vaguely articulated plan for public-private partnerships with local church groups has not curried favor among advocates fighting to keep the rec centers open.
“You’ve made it perfectly clear what the priorities of the administration is, and that’s fine; I certainly respect that. But parks and recreation and anti-poverty programs and services provided by community development are to my district what drainage is to Liz and Nanette’s districts,” City Councilman Glenn Lazard said, referencing fellow City Council members Liz Hebert and Nanette Cook, both of whom represent portions of south Lafayette. Lazard’s comment was met with loud applause from a packed council auditorium Tuesday night.
Many of the cuts would remain indefinitely. Longterm, the administration severs operating subsidies — supplemental dollars from the city general fund — for many of the affected programs. That’s consistent with Guillory’s calls to remake local government as we know it and push for more privatization where possible. Some cuts will be restored. Subsidies to Lafayette Transit System would stop for the next two fiscal years, replaced in the interim by a $7 million award from the federal coronavirus stimulus, with funding reverting to pre-Covid levels. But others, like the cuts to the Heymann Performing Arts Center that drew uproar from the dance companies that use the space, won’t be restored.
The budget forecasts steep losses in revenue into the next year. In her published budget discussion, Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups projects a 17% reduction in sales tax revenue in the current fiscal year, and another 11% decrease in the next one That includes $7.5 million in lost utility revenues, as bills have gone unpaid during the pandemic. LUS rolled out a program to help families catch up on their bills, spreading the debt out as long as they’re able to stop accruing more. It’s unclear whether LCG will take advantage of the $35 million in debt capacity it sought as a backstop to operations.
Belts are tightening hard while the city’s substantial reserves are jealously protected. Noting in his budget message the $18 million operating deficit he “inherited” from the previous administration and council, Guillory makes sparing use of the substantial cushion provided by general fund reserves. The city sat on an unaudited fund balance of $54 million going into this year, an amount that would cover 50% of its annual operating costs. For perspective, the city of Lafayette began fiscal year 2010 with a $19 million fund balance, then 20% of its audited expenses, at a time when consolidated government was climbing out of a hole. Guillory’s proposed budget and forecasts for coming years would park the general fund balance around $30 million, or 30% of operating costs while revenues creep up. Long-standing local fiscal policy has targeted a fund balance covering 20% of expenses. Guillory’s proposal, anticipating sluggish revenue growth, keeps reserves well above that threshold.
“That is what I’m looking into. I get you’re trying to keep money in the general fund. These are the rainy day funds,” says Councilwoman Cook, who has also needled the administration for a lack of communication on some budget figures, including the numbers used to justify the rec center closures. She notes $890,000 in unencumbered CREATE funds, a figure she’d been after to clarify but unable to get pinned down. “That’s the first time I’m getting that number. Those are funds that could be put to good use. To shut down things just for a nice float…I don’t think so.”
This is a proposed budget and subject to council debate. Both the city and parish councils will have to sign off on the administration’s plan. Over the next couple of months, budget sessions will break the constituent parts down, and council amendments could radically change how the budget looks once it gets to the other side of final adoption. And even then, major changes can be made. Most of the added expenses weighing down the current budget — pay raises for police, fire and LCG personnel — were passed after the previous budget was adopted.
AcA’s talent buyer talks the challenges of planning for the unexpected and how to attack the notion of the performing arts as a “white space.”
Hopping the fence to sneak into the old Heymann Park pool as a kid, Parish Councilman AB Rubin got caught by park police. Decades later he still has a scar under his beard from nicking his cheek, and a parking lot has paved over the pool that was once a fixture of social life in Lafayette’s McComb-Veazey neighborhood. Smiling, Rubin […]
The gist: Offered as relief, the governor’s emergency rent assistance program has met little celebration from housing advocates, who are wary that the $24 million set aside is a pittance compared with the volume of estimated need. Housing advocates say avoiding a wave of housing instability in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, will cost at least 10 times what the state has cobbled together.
Up front, the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance program will launch with $7 million and grow to collect $24 million in federal housing funds. The program will be centralized and managed by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. An income cap of $25,450 limits the program to the very poor. Louisiana’s median income is around $48,000.
A report circulated by housing advocates estimates Louisiana renters need $250 million through the end of the year. Metro Lafayette alone, according to that same calculation, would need more than twice what’s been offered by the program, and little money has been offered up locally. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to authorize $200,000 in local rent and utility relief.
“It’s like trying to soak up an oil spill with a paper towel,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, of the resources thrown at housing so far. Her comments echo official statements from statewide organizations like HousingLouisiana, which issued a press release applauding the thought behind the program but questioning the effort. A $15 million program in Houston ran out of money in two hours.
Critics further point out the billions in federal assistance handed out to small businesses in Louisiana alone. Around $8 billion flowed into Louisiana’s small businesses via the CARES Act, the multi-trillion dollar stimulus stood up in a scramble by Congress to prop up the American economy as joblessness soared. Businesses in Lafayette Parish collected $600 million in forgivable federal loans valued at $150,000 or more through that program. The Louisiana Legislature authorized another $300 million for its own Main Street Recovery Act. And Lafayette Consolidated Government opened a $1 million small business grant program with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing advocates continue to warn of a coming wave of evictions. Legal proceedings on evictions in Louisiana resumed in June, the first shoe to drop. But the looming July 25 end of a federal moratorium on evictions has advocates in suspense. Expanded unemployment benefits will end July 31, days after the eviction protections are lifted for many of Louisiana’s 600,000 renter households. And, to be sure, many mortgage holders could be in trouble too as incomes decline and mortgage relief dries up.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we knew that if we could find a solution” it would take a while to make it work, Rachal says. Rent programs based on federal dollars are notoriously slow, suggesting that even as applicants flock to the rent program’s website or blow up 211 for help, the money won’t come quickly for them, both gumming up the flow of relief and — in the worst cases — arriving too little, too late.
Evictions have been abnormally low in Lafayette. The City Court docket has held steady at 30 filings per week since the eviction stay was lifted in June. Pre-Covid levels averaged around 60 evictions per week, according to City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom. “I hold out the hope that those numbers don’t escalate,” Saloom says.
It feels like a calm before the storm. The dire predictions from housing advocates are premised on sustained, high levels of unemployment. While ticking down, unemployment figures have remained stubbornly high, suggesting the astronomical costs of need worrying housing advocates aren’t so far fetched. Even at half the value projected, the scale would be historic. Louisiana has 312,000 continued unemployment claims, posting a small decline last week. The Acadiana region bucked the trend, bumping slightly up to just more than 36,000 claims.
The early signs are there. More than 320 households, including many with children, are in hotel rooms secured as emergency housing by ARCH, Rachal says, and the number is rising. Beyond people showing up for help, advocates can’t see beyond the horizon to what’s coming. It’s unclear exactly how many people live in housing currently protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which covers any domicile that receives federal dollars — by voucher, mortgage backing or tax credit. Whatever that figure, it’s likely to dwarf the number that were covered by the state’s moratorium only.
“I have a lot of concern that people might think that’s solved now,” Rachal says of the message the rental program sends. “And it’s not.”
Cracks in the governor’s mandate are an easy opening for objecting owners to squeeze through and take a stand on principle, which many have.
The gist: Deaths, hospitalizations and cases are rising in Lafayette at a troubling pace. Both the parish and the greater Acadiana region are in the throes of striking rebounds that have positioned the area among the state’s hotspots.
The gist: In light of growing cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Edwards announced Monday he will not move Louisiana to the next phase of reopening. Rebounds across the state — and in Acadiana in particular — have frustrated the state’s efforts to keep the curve and forced the pause.
We asked readers this week to sound off: Is it time for the statue of Alfred Mouton to go? Here’s what they had to say.
His Acadiana Black Pride Flag has caught on as a local symbol of solidarity with the nation’s swelling protests and calls for change