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Christiaan Mader

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

What does ‘essential’ mean, anyway?

The gist: Now that we’re officially in stay-at-home mode — the governor’s order took effect at 5 p.m. Monday afternoon — it remains somewhat unclear what is and what isn’t considered an essential business. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order cited federal guidelines, and you can find that list is here. But confusion nevertheless abounds. 

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Most essential jobs are what you would expect. Healthcare and first responders, pharmacists, law enforcement, air traffic controllers and grocery store employees probably come to mind. If you thought about it a little bit longer, you might come up with others like postal workers and laundromats. The list is much bigger than that. 

The rest are a little bit harder to pin down. The governor does spell out a number of businesses that are explicitly closed, building on previous proclamations: amusement parks, museums, theaters, zoos, gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and strip clubs. Most retail is closed up, save convenience stores, but car dealers are allowed to remain open. 

There is some wiggle room. The order has a blanket provision covering anything not explicitly laid out. Any businesses not covered can stay open if they observe social distancing policies, keep employees a minimum of 6 feet apart, and limit rolls to 10 people or fewer. By design or otherwise, the grey area allows some breathing room for commerce to continue. 

The order has halted some major employers. Lafayette’s Stuller Inc. announced ahead of the 5 p.m. deadline that it would stop operations and pay its employees for the duration of the shelter order. Others are continuing to mull where they fit in. 

Local authorities will enforce the order. Sheriff Mark Garber says the public can report violations via 911, saying his approach is to appeal to “common sense” first before escalating a clampdown. 

“The spirit of this order is to save lives,” Garber says. 
Are you working for a non-essential business but still required to go to work? Let us know. You can fill out this form anonymously.

Community spread of coronavirus confirmed in Lafayette

The gist: Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lafayette have ticked up since the first two announced late last week. Officials have confirmed that community spread – infection without a traceable origin — has been detected among the nine cases reported thus far. 

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This was expected. Announcing Lafayette’s first two cases on March 18, Dr. Tina Stefanski, the top public health official for the region, said evidence of community spread was not yet found, but she indicated that it was bound to happen. LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle confirmed community spread in Lafayette Parish to reporters this afternoon, citing a conversation he had with Dr. Doug Clement, an emergency medicine physician at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center. 

“We suspected that before, but now we have documentation,” Stefanski said in interview Monday, adding it’s believed there is community spread throughout the state. Her colleagues in New Orleans are overwhelmed, she said, adding that the presence of community spread underscores the importance of the governor’s directive to stay home.

We still don’t really know the extent of COVID-19’s presence in Lafayette. That’s in part because Lafayette has lagged on testing, Stefanski noted.

New Orleans is far and away the state’s epicenter for the pandemic. As of publication, Louisiana has reported 1,172 of confirmed COVID-19 infections, the vast majority of which are in the New Orleans area.  

As Lafayette catches up on testing, it’s likely we’ll see many more cases. Since opening a central screening at the Cajundome last Wednesday, screeners have sent off 447 samples for coronavirus testing. Patients at the Cajundome site, whittled down first by a telephone screening process set up through LCG’s 311 operation, are among the most likely to test positive for the virus. Many more likely candidates are sent away, in the event they aren’t considered high risk and thus meet the criteria for testing. 

“We saw this exponential growth in New Orleans. We cannot allow that to happen in Acadiana,” Stefanki said.

Commercial labs have tested hundreds more from this area, but exact figures are unavailable. For context, Louisiana Department of Health reports 4,314 tests completed in commercial labs, out of 5,948 total administered statewide.

CDC guidelines reserve tests for at-risk cases. Older people and people with underlying medical conditions like type II diabetes and heart disease are given preference.

What does this all mean? This was a foregone conclusion for health officials. While the glut of new confirmations in Lafayette has yet to land as predicted, expectations remain that this area will continue to see a rise. It’s important to keep in mind that confirmations tell us relatively little about the number of actual infections, considering that tests are given on a constrained basis.

Link: Grab-and-go meal pickup times changed for LPSS schools

The Advocate:

The district released a statement Friday that pickup hours would be from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. beginning Monday.

Meal pickup is available at 15 schools across the district.

The schools include:

  • Alice Boucher Elementary
  • Broussard Middle
  • Carencro Middle
  • Charles Burke Elementary
  • Corporal Michael Middlebrook Elementary
  • Duson Elementary
  • Edgar Martin Middle
  • J.W. Faulk Elementary
  • Lafayette Middle
  • Live Oak Elementary
  • Milton Elementary and Middle
  • Paul Breaux Middle
  • S.J. Montgomery Elementary
  • Scott Middle School
  • Youngsville Middle

Link: Coronavirus cases in Louisiana up to 1,172, including 34 deaths, more cases in Acadiana

The Advocate:

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Louisiana increased over the past 24 hours from 837 to 1,172 with 14 additional deaths, bringing the total deaths to 34.In Lafayette, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals as of noon Monday is reporting nine coronavirus cases, up from six Sunday.

Can our hospitals handle a surge?

We’ve seen alarms go up in New Orleans, where hospital staff are staring down a wave. The reality is some hospitals run near capacity when there isn’t a pandemic around.

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The Buchanan garage problem redux: Now what?

What happens next with the Buchanan garage is unclear, but the options are limited.

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LUS reorg could be bigger than Guillory let on; all of Fiber is on the table

The gist: The Guillory administration’s push to consolidate IT groups under one roof may move all of LUS Fiber, not just its IT personnel, under the authority of a new Department of Innovation. This would be a bigger shakeup of the telecom and its former sister department LUS than previously suggested by the administration in meetings and in the press. 

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The Department of Innovation is proposed to “streamline” technology operations within city-parish government. In interviews, Mayor-President Josh Guillory has hinted at a major shakeup of LUS and LUS Fiber, taking the view that costs can be cut and operations made more seamless if reorganized. The Department of Innovation would house all of the administration’s technology initiatives, including the Digital 311 project launched by former M-P Joel Robideaux’s administration and a broader slate of Smart City programs imagined in a 2018 consultant-guided strategic plan. 

An LCG spokesman confirms in an interview the possibility that all of Fiber is subject to reorganization but says it is “not set in stone.” 

A wholesale move of Fiber has not been previously discussed publicly. The administration met with council members in late January to brief them on the planned reorganization — then putatively limited to just IT groups at LUS and Fiber — but council members Nanette Cook and Liz Hebert say they did not walk away with the understanding that moving all of Fiber into the Department of Innovation was on the table. A slide deck produced for those meetings hints at the need for LUS and Fiber to adopt “business focused” leadership, as opposed to “engineering focused” leadership, but doesn’t make clear to what extent Fiber’s chain of command or organization will change. 

“Let’s wait till they get their director[s] before we start pulling it apart,” Cook says of the reorganization in general, which she warmed up to after her briefing last month. She says the administration’s view is that the departments need to be set up before new directors are recruited. Fiber and LUS are both headed by interim appointees deemed unqualified by LUS’s consulting engineer of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions. LUS has been without a permanent director for more than 18 months; NewGen reminded the administration of the long absence of steady leadership at the beginning of Guillory’s term, according to emails obtained by The Current in a public records request. NewGen is in town this week to make a site visit as part of its annual engineering report.

If Fiber were to become part of the Department of Innovation, it would no longer have an independent director and would instead report to current LCG Chief Information Officer Randy Gray. This would balloon the operations under Gray’s control from an Information Systems & Technology budget of $6 million to a combined budget of more than $50 million. Most of that budget, $42 million, would come from Fiber. CAO Cydra Wingerter has previously said combining just the IT staff for LUS, Fiber and IS&T would save approximately $500,000 annually. LCG has contracts worth more than $1 million with private consultant KPMG to build out its Digital 311 system — a website where residents can report non-emergency problems to the police, Public Works and other departments — and develop other Smart Cities projects. 

While the reorg plan was called “preliminary,” internal emails reveal that it was set on a fast track. Interim LUS Director Lowell Duhon referred to a “tight timeline” for the reorganization in email threads with LUS Fiber interim Director Kayla Miles Brooks, LCG CIO Gray, CAO Wingerter and others. Wingerter, Gray and Brooks have spearheaded the effort — pointedly, no long-serving or more senior LUS or Fiber staff have been involved — with Duhon promising his support in seeing the shakeup through and noting some resistance among longtime LUS staff, who bristled at being left out of the plans. 

I spoke with [Former Interim LUS Director] Jeff [Stewart] tonight about me asking you to consider including someone from IS&T @ LUS in on the planning, but that you were concerned about it delaying the already tight schedule.

— Interim LUS Director Lowell Duhon’s Jan. 14 email to Gray, Wingerter and Brooks

Stewart was among four top-level LUS and Fiber staffers placed on administrative leave in early February after the administration claimed it had uncovered evidence of an attempt to hide email records connected to a pattern of “questionable” payments made by LUS to LUS Fiber, in possible violation of state law. This week, Stewart and former LUS Fiber interim Director Teles Fremin were cleared of wrongdoing and returned to work, according to multiple sources. The administration has kept the names of the employees confidential but did confirm that two returned to work Monday.

You’re going to have a select group of individuals who disagree,” LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle says in an interview. Defending the closed loop of decision makers, Angelle points out that LCG has more than 2,000 employees, and that the mayor-president can’t be expected to consult each of them to make big decisions. The apparent urgency behind the reorganization plan was motivated by a desire to realize the benefits sooner than later, Angelle say, not any “ulterior motive.”

Publicly, Guillory and Duhon downplayed how advanced plans were, telling The Acadiana Advocate in January that LUS insiders alerting the newspaper to the IT reorganization, and opposing it, were making assumptions about an idea in its infancy.

“When I say we’re in the beginning phases of even thinking about a possible reorganization for efficiency …” Guillory told The Advocate on Jan. 22, just days after an ordinance was drafted and distributed for discussion internally. “If the beginning has a beginning, that’s where we are.”

An assistant city-parish attorney noted some legal obstacles created by the charter amendments. Attorney Mike Hebert, who wrote the draft ordinance, dated January 17, flagged provisions in the new charter requiring LUS and LUS Fiber to be overseen exclusively by the City Council. But the reorganization plan, according to the draft ordinance, would place all of Fiber under a Department of Innovation overseen by the Parish Council, too. That department would also house all of IS&T — essentially LCG’s IT office — and peel IT staff away from LUS to make a robust innovation division charged with “streamlining” technology services within LCG.

“The proposed reorganization moves a department of LCG [LUS Fiber] governed only by the City Council into a department that will consist of city and parish functions and will be headed by appointees who presumably will be funded jointly by the City and Parish,” Hebert wrote in an email to Gray, Wingerter, Brooks and the mayor-president. 

For most of its existence, Fiber was a division of LUS. It was split off into its own department by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and the previous council in 2018. That decision was partially influenced by the then-brewing controversy around payments for services LUS and other LCG divisions made to LUS Fiber that may have violated a state law created to prevent LCG funds from propping up the municipal telecom. Robideaux reported his findings to the Public Service Commission, which has limited oversight on Fiber. Robideaux and the council agreed that Fiber needed its own leadership to thrive.

This reorganization would pull Fiber back into the fold of another entity, LCG, to which it sells services. On its face, that contradicts part of the original justification for breaking Fiber out on its own, laid out by Robideaux last year. The lingering controversy has been leveraged by Guillory to gather support for the reorganization generally. The mayor-president himself has consistently messaged that LUS in particular needs to be reined in, saying in a recent interview that the utility system is not a “sovereign state.”

Don’t panic: There is no flooding ‘silver bullet’

Researchers and engineers generally agree that solving Lafayette’s flooding problem will take a comprehensive approach.

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Taxes passed for Downtown, the Northside and a riverwalk

The gist: Five sets of sales and hotel taxes were approved by city council members, acting as the governing boards of new special districts created to vigorous objection in the wrap-up of the last council and administration’s term. Legal and political hurdles remain, but as it stands the taxes would take effect in July. 

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, the outgoing consolidated council and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux created five special taxing districts — called economic development districts. Because the district maps are drawn to avoid voters, they can levy taxes without a general election, leading opponents to cry foul. A lawsuit was filed to stop them. And the mayor-president has spoken out against them, announcing Tuesday that he’ll propose an ordinance to repeal them next month. Here are the districts and their taxes:

  • Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • University Gateway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Trappey Economic Development District  – 2% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Northway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy

Tuesday’s vote to levy taxes was an anti-climax. Opposition to the districts continues by way of a lawsuit brought by conservatives — many of the same people who sued to stop the charter amendments — who say the districts flaut requirements in Lafayette’s charter — essentially, its constitution — that the public gets to vote on new taxes. Supporters counter that this is how all economic development districts are set up, as laid out in state law. 

“The question is not is it legal…but is it the right thing to do,” asked Jeremiah Supple, a Downtown property developer and one of the parties suing to stop the districts, on potentially dubious legal grounds. 

Disclosure: Jeremiah Supple donated to The Current in 2019. View our donors here.

Downtown’s district has been a lightning rod for the issue. It’s taken the brunt of criticism, becoming the scapegoat for the raft of taxes the Robideaux administration proposed in a bundle with days left in 2019. The Downtown Development Authority, which already levies its own property tax, champions the taxing district as a way to raise money for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Downtown advocates believe the $700,000 raised annually by a 1% sales tax and 2% hotel occupancy tax can help shore up aging sewer infrastructure, improve sidewalks and, long term, put new developments over the top. 

“Downtown is craving for infrastructure development,” DDA board chairman Miles Matt said, defending the Downtown district. A particular sore point is a lack of sewer capacity, which has restricted the scale of residential projects Downtown. In December, the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority inked a deal to loan $1 million to LUS to build a new sewer lift pump, which will provide some relief. But DDA and its sympathizers have groused about a lack of public investment in general, saying the last major project to happen within its boundaries was the streetscape overhaul of Jefferson Street in the 1990s. 

That came to a head over lost dollars for streetscape last year. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux shifted $5.8 million set aside for improvements along Main Street, money that had sat idle for years, to pay for other projects. DDA fought the transfer unsuccessfully but managed to keep $1 million for engineering and planning on the Main Street project. 

Still, opponents view this as a way to fatten developers’ wallets. All of the EDD agreements — which are contracted with some private and some public partners — include wishlists of project types that are OK’d for funding by the district. Hotels, restaurants and other private enterprises are on the boilerplate lists for approved uses. Charles Landry, the Baton Rouge attorney hired to craft the districts, argued Tuesday night that the council members, acting as the individual members of each board, alone have the discretion to approve projects for funding. They, not the developers, control the purse strings. Landry also defended how the districts were set, saying dozens have been authorized by state law across Louisiana, none with a public vote. That’s just how these things are done, he argued Tuesday night in a spar with Councilman Andy Naquin. 

The issue isn’t dead. And it’s likely to remain a political sticking point for ascendant conservative activists who have seized the issue since last year. The lawsuit filed by Supple and others is awaiting a response from city-parish attorneys but may fizzle; the plaintiffs appear to have rested their case on the wrong statute. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has aligned himself politically with the faction fighting the districts and made a campaign pledge to Republican donor Will Mills to oppose any tax increase. He announced late Tuesday afternoon his intent to repeal the districts with an ordinance next month. It doesn’t look like he’ll have the votes; the taxes passed 3 – 1 last night with Naquin the lone dissenter. Councilwoman Liz Hebert was absent from the meeting but has voted for the districts in prior steps. This marks the first real public rift between the mayor-president and the council on public policy. 

What’s next. The districts will begin collecting tax revenues in July, at the start of the new fiscal year. Until there’s money in the bank, so to speak — and to be clear, this money is not rolled into LCG’s budget; the districts are separate entities — there’s not a whole lot for the districts to do.

Council Preview: Special taxes, LCG pension changes, green infrastructure

The gist: Both the city and parish council agendas are light this week. That makes plenty of room for what should be a lively slate for the five economic development districts created earlier this year.  The city council members will vote to levy sales and hotel occupancy taxes in their boundaries.

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Economic Development Districts 

Special taxes for special districts: Five special taxing districts, called economic development districts, were created earlier this year to raise revenue for economic development within their boundaries. On Tuesday, the district governing authorities — the members of the city council — will hold a public hearing and vote to levy sales and hotel occupancy taxes. A lawsuit has challenged the districts on procedural grounds. Here are the districts and their proposed taxes: 

  • Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • University Gateway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Trappey Economic Development District  – 2% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Northway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy

Something to keep in mind: These are meetings of the district governing authorities, not the city council. The council members make up the district authorities as individuals, not as a council. Those governing authorities alone determine what’s done with the money. 

Joint Council  

Green infrastructure grant application. The Planning Department is seeking approval to apply for a grant to contract help in developing guidelines for green infrastructure. Green infrastructure broadly refers to natural systems or designs for managing stormwater and addressing flood risks. Think bioswales and natural drainage channels. This is a resolution. 

Changes to public employee retirement benefit. Billed as another cost-saving measure that could cut “hundreds of thousands of dollars” — according to an internal memo — from future budgets, the administration wants to swap out state retirement plans for municipal employees, excluding police, fire and city court. The proposal would require future employees to enter the state’s parochial employee retirement system instead of the municipal employee retirement system. This item is up for introduction.