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Community Agenda 2019

The future of work can still be human, if coding camps like this can make it more female

Encouraging more girls to get into computer science and robotics can help fill a growing employment gap. This summer camp is part of that effort.

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Don’t call the Pride Month failure a setback, advocates say

Getting Lafayette to formally recognize Pride month would have been a win for the local queer community. Supporters say the loss stings but wasn’t quite unexpected.

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Councilman proposes temporary parishwide sales tax for drainage

The gist: Spurred by a spike in flooded homes in his district, Councilman Pat Lewis has moved to put a quarter cent sales tax, assessed parishwide, before voters this fall. Public notice of the new tax will be offered at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting. The council would vote in July on calling a fall election.  

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The sales tax would generate roughly $13 million annually. Lewis tells me he’d like to pursue a federal match to increase the buying power of the funds. Dollars generated from the tax would accelerate the current deferred maintenance program initiated by the Robideaux administration, he says, and go to new projects not included on that list. The tax would sunset after five years.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Lewis says. “In the last flood there’s areas that never flooded before in 30 or 40 years.” Lewis represents Downtown and a large chunk of the northern limits of the city and the parish, portions of which saw increased flood activity in this month’s squall, the third 100-year rain event in the last three years.

Drainage currently receives $10 million each year after a 2017 rededication of the combined public health and mosquito control property tax shifted $2.5 million in new money over to an existing millage. That proposition, a brainchild of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, also produced a one-time $9 million transfer to kick-start the first 27 of 77 deferred maintenance projects.

Another one-time transfer of $8 million, out of the parish library system’s fund balance, is before voters this fall. There is roughly $32 million in projects on the maintenance program’s full work list of projects. LCG’s public works department has estimated an overhaul of the parishwide stormwater management system could cost between $500 million and $875 million.  

At least one council member won’t support the sales tax, saying it’s not a long-term solution to an ongoing problem. Councilman Jay Castille says the parish’s massive drainage issues would be best addressed through a millage. “The millage we have in place needs to be increased,” Castille maintains. “In five years when you’re out of money, what do you do, ask voters for another tax?”

What to watch for: Whether a recently tax-averse electorate will pay more for better drainage. Lewis’ proposition faces an uphill battle given the political climate around government spending. Many voters and candidates advocate that enough drainage funding can be obtained by shifting money out of services like the public library system. Others believe only more revenue can accomplish a comprehensive fix. How to pay for better drainage, coming hot on the heels of another big rain this year, will figure prominently in parish elections across the board.  

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Food summit organizers want to mend broken links in the food chain

The inaugural South Louisiana Food Summit aims to fix communication gaps among farmers, restaurants and policy makers over a two-day slate of site visits and panels.

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Overnight downpour floods streets and homes in Lafayette areas spared in 2016

The gist: Intense rainfall hovered over central Lafayette neighborhoods, raising waters from drainage systems into homes that haven’t taken water in decades and onto streets that stayed relatively dry in 2016.

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Residents in the Saint Streets, LaPlace, McComb-Veazey, Freetown and elsewhere reported flooding in the streets, and homes in some cases, though not nearly as widespread as the floods of August 2016. A branch of Coulee Mine overtopped south of West St. Mary Boulevard, pouring water into some homes near the concrete-lined channel. Pop’s Poboys in Downtown Lafayette took on water for the seventh time since opening in 2015. Carpe Diem and The Juliet Hotel, across the street from Pop’s, flooded for the first time in recent memory.

A woman was rescued from a car trapped at the bottom of an underpass near Downtown in the early morning. Firefighters busted out the back window of her white SUV and pulled her out, according to bystanders. She was safely escorted by EMTs to an ambulance, walking under her own power. Water levels rose to 11 feet in the underpass, which forms a deep bowl beneath the railroad track. DDA CEO Anita Begnaud tells me that level is unprecedented.

The rain event equalled 2016 in intensity, but for a shorter period of time and over north-central Lafayette instead of further south. Lafayette Parish took 7 to 9 inches of rain between 5 and 8 this morning, according to KATC Chief Meteorologist Rob Perillo. Perillo tells me he expects to see more and more rain events of this scale, calling the intensity a “climate signal” — an event that bears the markings of climate change. Rapid urbanization is careening more stormwater runoff into drainage channels, he says, putting Lafayette Parish at a “crossroads” when it comes to how it deals with growth and a changing climate.

Youngsville stayed dry. South Lafayette was devastated by the floods of 2016, but escaped trouble in the Thursday morning downpour. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter credits the city’s “aggressive” work on drainage infrastructure for the performance. Areas around Youngsville, however, saw relatively slower pours than in the 2016 deluge. In a sense, 2016 was repeated but reversed geographically in Lafayette Parish and confined to a shorter window.

By no means do I want to do a victory lap, but I’m pleased with what I’ve seen,” Ritter tells me.

The Vermilion crested for the 33rd time since 2010 and once again reversed flow. That figure points to the impact of development on flood levels. By contrast, the Vermilion River hit flood stage only five times in the 1980s. Flood events have increased alongside population growth in Lafayette Parish more broadly. This was the 6th flood stage recorded at the Surrey Street gauge since March 2016.

Why this matters: It appears the work cleaning out parish coulees and ditches has made a difference. Councilman Bruce Conque credits the work for easing the flow of the Coulee Orgeron between W. Congress Street and Johnston Street and preventing a repeat of flooding in homes along that channel. Still, Lafayette appears to face a more existential problem with respect to stormwater management.

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Millions in state dollars likely headed for Moncus Park, Lafayette airport, I-49 South and more

The gist: In an election year breakthrough, nearly 20 Lafayette Parish projects have survived into the final days of the state legislative session. Pending a signature from the governor, the area is set to pull more than $40 million in priority funding for some long-suffering projects, as well as $150 million in transportation dollars for I-49 South.

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“It’s a small victory, but it’s not the end of the process,” state Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan tells me. Coussan credits an areawide push to sell Acadiana projects to key figures like Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Sen. JP Morrell, the chair of the Senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Both Morrell and Edwards visited priority projects — Moncus Park and the airport, respectively — in the last year. Big budget capacity greased the skids as the political stars aligned.

Making it rain across South Louisiana. Here’s a list of some of the Priority 1 and 2 dollars (more on that in a minute) earmarked for Acadiana in HB2, the state’s infrastructure budget bill.

  • Lafayette Airport – $10 million (P1)
  • Moncus Park – $2 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Parish Courthouse – $3 million (P1)
  • Opportunity Machine Renovation – $5.6 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway – $4 million (P2)
  • Apollo Road Extension – $5.5 million (P2)
  • University Avenue Corridor – $3 million (P2)
  • Holy Rosary Institute – $500,000 (P2)

Top priority dollars aren’t the entire outlay. HB2 includes more projects than the state can actually fund. Priority 1 dollars are typically paid outright. Priority 2 is for new projects paid by bonds. Other dollars are parked in Priority 5, which is essentially a queue for future allocations.

I-49 South got $150 million in BP oil spill money in a bonanza of riders to a transportation bill that ballooned the item to $700 million in total allocations, statewide. The I-49 money is cash for “shovel-ready” components of the project, not the Lafayette Connector, which alone is expected to cost half a billion dollars or more and will likely need federal funding to move forward.

This marks something of a breakthrough for the Acadiana delegation. Legislators have grumbled for several years that the region has been left out in the cold on state allocations. Some of the items in HB2 are outlays previously killed by Edwards, like funding for Moncus Park and Apollo Road. Insiders say the starve-out was a direct result of clashes between Acadiana’s largely Republican delegation and a Democratic governor.

You gotta commend the legislative delegation,” LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me of the haul. “It’s impressive.”  

What to watch for: Whether HB2 makes it to the end of session unchanged. And then, whether Edwards vetoes any of the projects, as he has in the past. Edwards has a lot of incentive to pass these projects through in an election year. Meanwhile, last year’s sales tax compromise gives the governor little reason to be punitive, some state political insiders tell me. There’s optimism that much of the outlay will make it.

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Robideaux moves to appoint split council transition team

The gist: While a legal challenge to the charter amendments winds through the courts, the mayor-president has begun preparing for government by two councils. As of this week, Joel Robideaux has defined a transition team structure, and four appointments have been made.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Lafayette voted to split the City-Parish Council in two, cracking open some tough questions about how to dole out financial responsibility. That vote still faces a legal challenge that could overturn the decision.

“As we approach a legal resolution of the charter amendments,” Robideaux wrote in a Monday email to parish leaders, “it seems prudent to begin putting together an independent [Robideaux’s emphasis] transition team to work through anticipated and unanticipated issues.”

The team is comprised of appointees from parish offices plus UL President Dr. Joseph Savoie. Thus far four representatives have accepted appointments:

  • Louis Perret, clerk of court
  • Keith Stutes, district attorney
  • Mark Garber, Lafayette Parish sheriff
  • Charlie Fitzgerald, district court judges  
  • Conrad Comeaux, Lafayette Parish assessor

Other appointees will come from the parish assessor, the City-Parish Council and the LPUA. Mayors of the other Lafayette Parish municipalities will get one collective appointment.

Creating a transition team has been in the air since at least December. A joint team, appointed by the council and the administration, was floated just weeks after the charter amendments passed. The momentum was derailed by the discovery of errors in the charter amendments that drew a legal challenge. The original concept was a 15- to 20-person team with specific carve-outs for private citizens, according to comments from Councilman Jay Castille at the time. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me the mayor-president’s approach with the current structure is to bring to the table parish officials who have budgetary skin in the game.

“The timing is critical,” Councilman Bruce Conque, a charter amendment advocate, tells me, noting that election qualifying is rapidly approaching. The council has its own transition team to handle the logistical considerations internal to the council, things like sorting out office space for 10 council members instead of nine, and so on.

The transition team has a difficult charge — namely, picking apart a consolidated budget that, in many ways, props up a fiscally fragile parish government. Shared costs for shared services will make for thorny conversations.

“The parish fiscal crisis will remain as the parish budget issues can only be expected to remain status quo at best,” Councilman Bruce Conque wrote in an email to parish leaders this week. “I do not envy whoever will be the new mayor-president.”

What to watch for: How quickly the team is seated and whether this is all for naught. We’re playing a tricky game here. Wingerter tells me the consensus view among parish leadership is preparation is paramount, even if there’s a risk that the courts could pause or even throw out the transition to government by separate parish and city councils.

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The Current is going nonprofit. Here’s why

Over the last 14 months, The Current has been an experiment in building a new kind of media. We were a new kind of animal. Digital first. Member supported. And now we’re pursuing a new moniker: Lafayette’s first nonprofit news organization. Let me tell you why.

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Judge denies secretary of state’s request to suspend charter amendment ruling pending appeal

The gist: A district court judge denied the secretary of state’s request for a suspensive appeal, a procedure that would have paused the effect of his decision upholding City-Parish Council’s ordinance to fix errors in the amended charter.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, in March, a move that drew a legal challenge from a council candidate. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed May 8 by Judge John Trahan.

Ardoin had filed a suspensive appeal. If granted, the district court’s ruling would have been shelved until appeals were exhausted. Lawyers with the attorney general’s office, representing the secretary of state, argued that allowing the ruling to take effect would have “disastrous consequences,” should the constitutionality of the corrective ordinance be overturned during or after the election.

Attorneys for some Lafayette residents argued suspending the ruling would have risked leaving 300 disenfranchised. Again, that’s if the appeal would linger into or beyond this fall’s elections. Legal descriptions defining voter precincts would remain broken if the ruling were paused, they argue, leaving them unable to vote.

An appeal will nevertheless work its way through the courts. Attorneys for Keith Kishbaugh, the candidate who filed the original legal challenge to stop the fix by ordinance, filed a separate appeal. Both parties were granted “devolutive” appeals, meaning the judgment remains in effect during the appeals process. You can see the notice of appeal here.

Ardoin appears bound to qualify the election, should the appeal drag on. In a separately filed motion to stay the judgment pending an appeal, Ardoin contended that allowing the judgment to stand with appeals in the air was, in effect, a legal order on the office to hold the election according to the amended charter. There are fewer than 70 days until qualifying.

Why this matters: Qualifying begins Aug. 6 for the Oct. 12 election.
Following an appeal all the way up to the Louisiana Supreme Court could take as much as 60 days from here, I’m told, although the appellate courts will likely work to move things along. Should the appeals linger into August, this effectively means candidates for separate city and parish councils will be qualified.

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Adopt-A-Stop count up to 30 bus shelters funded

The gist: In its first year, the public-private partnership program Adopt-A-Stop has accelerated the pace of covering Lafayette’s 618 bus stops. A Lafayette’s McDonald’s franchisee cut the ribbon on the second of its three pledged stops Tuesday.

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“The generosity has been overwhelming,” Councilwoman Liz Hebert tells me. Hebert launched the program a little over a year ago. LCG’s budget has paced new shelters at 11 each year. Funding 30 in a single year takes a big chunk out of a still massive problem, tripling the number LCG can fund on its own. Only 10 percent of the city’s shelters are covered, leaving many of its riders, who make about 5,000 trips each day, without shelter in the summer’s sweltering heat and/or pouring rain.

“It’s great for the community, it’s great for our employees and we’re glad to be a part of it,” McLaff Inc. CEO EJ Krampe said at a ribbon cutting on the site of Lafayette’s very first McDonald’s, originally constructed in 1972 at the corner of Willow Street and the Evangeline Thruway. Around 15 of the store’s employees use the shelter each day, he said. McDonald’s has joined a growing list of community partners on the program, including UL Lafayette, CGI and the Islamic Center of Lafayette and more.

Hebert says she’s pursuing grants through LCG for more funding. Finding public dollars for the program is tricky, she says, a fact echoed by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux who remarked at the ceremony that he’s struggled for nine years to get more funding for bus shelters.

Boudreaux recalled his family’s front porch once served as an improvised shelter. The Northside councilman praised Hebert’s program, applauding the work for the dignity it provides citizens who rely on the bus system to get around. “Until you experience it, you don’t know,” he said.

Why this matters: Transportation access remains a challenge for many who live in economically distressed neighborhoods northeast of the Evangeline Thruway. More and more businesses are vacating those areas, putting additional strain on residents who don’t own cars but need to travel farther for work.

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New era but same consultant for LUS on long-term planning process

The gist: LUS will contract Burns & McDonnell to run its integrated resource plan, the process the utility uses to determine its future energy needs and how it will power them. The choice of consultant met immediate criticism among local green energy advocates. The contract is worth $500,000 and was approved Tuesday by the professional services committee.

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Burns & Mac guided LUS on two controversial decisions. In 2011, the company recommended LUS continue burning coal in central Louisiana, instead of switching to natural gas, a decision critics maintain was a costly mistake in hindsight. And in 2016, LUS developed a $100 million plan to build new natural gas generators, at the consultant’s suggestion, even raising electric rates to finance the plan. That decision triggered a backlash that ultimately shelved the plan and in part led to last year’s privatization controversy.

“Half a million dollars is a lot of money,” renewable energy advocate Simon Mahan tells me. Mahan developed a lengthy document criticizing the 2016 plan but has since departed Lafayette. “To use the same firm that got it wrong twice before is eyebrow raising.”  

Interim Director Jeff Stewart says this contract is different. The 2011 and 2016 plans did not involve robust public engagement, and Stewart says that engagement is baked into this upcoming process.

“That’s why we shelved [the 2016 plan],” Stewart tells me. “I want as many people who want to get involved to get involved.” He expects to time the public facing process to PlanLafayette activities, with outreach beginning in September.

LUS’s open approach seems to be working. Mahan tells me he believes that Burns & Mac is capable of delivering. And he gives a lot of credit to Stewart’s leadership style.

“Frankly, I’ve been really impressed with what he’s been saying and the actions he’s taken. There’s a new wind at LUS to listen to the public a little bit more,” Mahan says. “That makes me feel good.”  

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How swamp pop invaded the U.K. and stole Nick Lowe’s heart

Swamp pop took over the airwaves of 1970s London where it was loved and celebrated by English hitmakers like Nick Lowe, who performs in Lafayette this week.

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