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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.

State releases draft plan for spending $1.2 billion watershed grant

The gist: The multi-agency program created by the governor’s office in the wake of the 2016 floods has released a draft action plan outlining, in broad terms, how the state will spend a $1.2 billion grant from the federal government. A 45-day public comment period begins next week.

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Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to rewrite how Louisiana manages flood risk. Dividing the state into eight regions mapped along the state’s major watersheds, the initiative was launched to lift flood management decision-making above politics. A major catalyst for the program is a $1.2 billion grant authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to fund transformative projects and programs that make Louisiana less prone to stormwater disaster. Lafayette Parish and the Teche-Vermilion Watershed are part of Region 5, a zone made up of 16 parishes and dozens of municipalities. 

The plan doesn’t include specific projects. Rather, it develops guidelines by which projects will be selected and proposes a general distribution of the HUD grant. Here’s how the money breaks down: 

  • Local and Regional Projects and Programs – $571 million 
  • State Projects and Programs – $328 million 
  • Non-Federal Cost Share Assistance – $97 million 
  • Watershed Monitoring, Mapping and Modeling – $146 million 
  • Administrative Costs – $49 million  
  • Watershed Policy, Planning and Local Capacity Assistance – $24 million 

Half the money will be spent in 10 parishes most impacted by the 2016 floods. Three Acadiana parishes are included — Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia. That segment is spread across the full program budget allocations listed above, meaning not all of that money is earmarked for moving dirt. The action plan identifies 46 other parishes not designated by HUD as areas of increased risk, based on disaster declarations made in those areas during the 2016 floods, both in March, which affected northwest Louisiana, and August. 

There is some concern the program is stacked in favor of large cities. Pam Granger, the consulting engineer for the city of Youngsville, says without enough money to design and study projects that can be competitive, small towns won’t be able to take advantage of it, even in those hard-hit parishes. The plan notes high disaster risk affecting larger populations in coastal parishes, which she says suggests the initiative will likely emphasize projects there. 

“I think it’s going to shift money east. East of the Atchafalaya is going to see the most benefit of this plan,” Granger says.

LWI officials insist this is a starting point plan. Pat Forbes, executive director of the state Office of Community Development and the LWI lead, has stressed the state’s intention to build LWI’s work on local input. Even the eight watershed boundaries set up to organize the initiative’s work are flexible, he told New Orleans CityBusiness this week.

What to watch for: How the plan shapes up from here. State officials say they want to have the draft plan submitted to HUD for review by November, well ahead of the February deadline, to get things moving. That leaves relatively little time for substantive changes to be made. Once approved by HUD, the plan becomes the program’s scaffolding and will set the direction of travel for how funds hit the street.

Community Agenda 2019: You asked, we listened, they answered

We asked what you wanted to hear candidates for council and mayor-president talk about. Here are their responses.

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Acadiana residents and leaders frustrated by slow launch of state watershed initiative

The gist: Three years since its conception in the wake of the 2016 floods, the Louisiana Watershed Initiative has begun to take shape at a speed that is frustrating flood victims, advocates and local officials. Billed as an apolitical approach to tackling the state’s flood risk, the program has a steep hill to climb above political thorns.  

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Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to rewrite how Louisiana manages flood risk. Dividing the state into eight regions mapped along the state’s major watersheds, the initiative was launched to lift flood management decision-making above politics. A major catalyst for the program is a $1.2 billion grant authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to fund transformative projects and programs that make Louisiana less prone to stormwater disaster. Lafayette Parish and the Teche-Vermilion Watershed are part of Region 5, a zone made up of 16 parishes and dozens of municipalities. 

A draft action plan will be delivered Thursday. It’s expected to outline “draft projects” and data modeling programs that will enable projects to begin drawing down funds from the HUD grant, according to materials released at a public hearing in Lafayette last week. Allocations will be made to competitive projects in all eight regions over the next decade, with an initial $100 million infusion available in the next year for what LWI officials characterize as “no regrets” projects that don’t threaten to worsen flood conditions in neighboring jurisdictions. Office of Community Development CEO Pat Forbes, an initiative leader, said at the hearing that dredging the Vermilion River could qualify for that first tranche of funding. 

A map showing the watershed regions established by the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. Lafayette Parish is in Region 5.

Political suspicion has already begun to simmer. Region 5 officials peppered LWI representatives last week about the initiative’s speed, particularly the emphasis on more modeling and study, and how slowly the bulk of the HUD funds will be released. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter complained that municipalities had been left out of the decision-making process thus far, noting his office wasn’t notified of the hearing, and needled state representatives for dancing around the formality of naming the Acadiana Planning Commission as the Region 5 fiscal agent, the agency responsible for managing the program and distributing funds. 

“It is frustrating, but it’s federal money,” APC CEO Monique Boulet says, acknowledging the uphill public relations battle. “HUD has not completed the process [of making the funds available]. It’s still hung up in Washington. I know there’s a natural frustration built in. When you’re gonna use large amounts of federal money it’s slow.” 

$400,000 would go to APC to staff a team to manage the region. The funds for “capacity building” come from a separate state pool, not the HUD grant. Boulet says APC has not yet been formally appointed as the Region 5 fiscal agent, but she expects the agency will be. The regional structure developed by LWI outlines around regional planning agencies like APC. Temporary steering committees will be developed over the next few months, which will in turn put permanent management structures in place. Officials in Ascension Parish have bristled at the steering nominating process and the role of the Capital Region Planning Commission, the APC analog for that region. 

Locals want dirt moved now. But the program isn’t quite designed for immediate impact beyond the $100 million available in the next year. The bulk of the $1.2 billion fund will be released over the next 10 years as projects come online. LWI project lead Alex Carter projected deploying new watershed models, a network never before created at this scale, in the first two years, distributing half of the HUD funds by year five and completing allocations by year 10. HUD requires 50% of the money to go to projects in the 10 parishes most heavily impacted in 2016, including Region 5’s Lafayette Parish, Vermilion Parish and Acadia Parish. While the grant dollars were allocated by Congress in 2018, the federal guidelines for how the money should be used were only released in August. LWI is now hustling to finalize an action plan by the end of the year to open lines of credit, backed by the HUD funding, in late 2020.

“You need to have organized approach with this statewide,” says Dave Dixon, an advocate with volunteer organization DredgeTheVermilion.org. Dixon and Sierra Club Acadian Group Chair Harold Schoeffler have traveled the Teche-Vermilion Watershed promoting a list of projects they say will immediately reduce risk, the best known of which is dredging the Vermilion River. Dixon concedes the challenges of putting together such a wide-ranging program, but believes the state has dragged its feet in getting to this point. “I totally disagree with them taking this long” to get it together, he says. “They should have had a plan after 2016.” 

LWI officials say the program is about systemic change. While high impact projects are part of the ground game, the vision for LWI is to remake how Louisiana deals with flood risk. Funds could be used to “incentivize” municipalities and parishes to rethink patchy and inconsistent development standards that Forbes characterized as a “race to the bottom” of regulations loosened to attract commerce. The higher perch of the regional watershed bodies, ultimately designed by the member parishes in each region, would enable jurisdictions to set more uniform standards, LWI representatives believe. 

“Your local government could make that decision right now,” Forbes said last week. “It’s a difficult one to make because your neighbor in the watershed may not make the same decision, and consequently you push that development to your neighbor.” 

Acadiana submitted 22 projects totalling $80 million for a FEMA grant issued after the 2016 flood. Only nine projects were selected to receive funding from the $25 million hazard mitigation fund. Of those, only two have been approved by FEMA: a pair of regional detention projects in Youngsville totaling $7.5 million. Shovel-ready projects in that group are eligible to receive matching funds from the HUD pool. 

Why this matters: Headline-grabbing grants have shown a financial commitment from local, state and federal agencies to address Louisiana’s flooding problem wholesale, yet the pace of action has continued to frustrate stakeholders. A near miss of devastating rains in East Texas this month are a reminder of the sustained threat the region faces while policymakers work at the speed of government. Whether public buy-in is accomplished will be a big factor in the state initiative’s success and its ability to rise above politics. 

‘Doing nothing is not an option;’ Northside coalition creates black community agenda for local elections

The gist: Several Northside community organizations co-authored a comprehensive agenda calling for school board and LCG candidates to see generational poverty, lack of economic progress and failing schools as a local crisis deserving urgent intervention. 

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Housing, economic development, education and racial equity take top billing in a comprehensive document designed to force candidates for local public office to reckon with the Northside’s challenges on the campaign trail. The topics range across 13 areas of focus, also including criminal justice reform, public transit access and even drainage. Viewing the election as a leveraging point, the agenda criticizes local institutions and leadership for failing to address long-festering problems in the area. You can read the full agenda here. It includes a comprehensive list of participating organizations.

“We felt it was unfair to allow anyone to run for office, whether it’s in a council district or it’s the mayor-president, and we don’t have a framework for what our needs are,” says the Rev. Ken Lazard of Destiny of Faith Church. Lazard served on the coalition in his capacity as president of the Oasis Coterie in north Lafayette’s Truman neighborhood. 

The document has influenced two recent forums. Completed in several sessions over the summer, the “consensus” agenda was used as source material in probing candidates for mayor-president and the city and parish councils about issues facing north Lafayette at recent forums hosted by 100 Black Men and the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce. 

Doing nothing is not an option. That’s the agenda’s message, top-to-bottom. Policy initiatives target contracting and hiring disparities with LCG, calling for consolidated government to set a 10% benchmark for contracting minority-owned businesses and a 30% target for hiring black employees. Vacant and collapsing businesses have come to dominate the economic landscape in the area over the last few decades. The median income census tract covering Truman is $28,000. In some Northside blocks, income averages drop below $20,000. Parishwide, the median income is $52,000, boosted by affluence in much of south Lafayette. The agenda demands that the next crop of elected officials do something to stem rampant decline and change course from planning practices they say have intensified income gaps and contributed to high concentrations of poverty. 

“When you look at the data, the trend line is going down, not up,” activist Greg Davis, the coalition’s facilitator and lead organizer, says. “The outcomes are not good. If the outcomes are not good, that means the entities that do exist need to step up, renew themselves and reinvigorate in order to reverse that trend line.” Davis, a longtime education advocate who chairs the board of T.M. Landry College Prep, points to failing public schools in Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods as towering obstacles to prosperity in the area. The agenda itself calls the disparity a policy failure at LPSS, crystallized by a prejudiced view that black families don’t value education.  

“Without the proper education and training, too many north Lafayette residents will continue to work in part time jobs, with no benefits and receive near minimum wage pay,” the agenda reads. “Turning around the underperforming schools of north Lafayette must be a top priority for LCG and LPSS.” 

The agenda highlights dismal school performance among black students. Only 22% of students at Alice Boucher Elementary in the Truman neighborhood performed at grade level, according to 2018 data provided in the agenda. The school’s population is 95% African American. While 34% of Paul Breaux Middle School broader student population performed at grade level, only 19% of its black students did. Paul Breaux is in a predominantly poor, black neighborhood, the agenda says, yet the gifted program that buoys its numbers serves primarily white students from higher income families. 

Fixing schools isn’t just the school board’s job. The agenda argues that the mayor-president and council both have a role in prioritizing education and addressing access gaps, despite the lack of immediate oversight over public education. The coalition calls for the planned Northeast Library branch to be built near Northside High School and J.W. Faulk Elementary. 

Hopes remain high on Opportunity Zones. The agenda frequently cites the federal tax incentive program, designed to channel big money into low-income census tracts, as a key tool for economic progress in the area. But the leadership behind the agenda remains skeptical about the threat of development or infrastructure projects that would push out residents or exacerbate blight. While viewing the I-49 Connector as an opportunity for investment, it pushes future leadership to reconsider the planned elevated design of the freeway spur through the heart of Lafayette’s urban core. The Department of Transportation and Development has purchased $11 million in properties along the Evangeline Thruway corridor, leaving many homes and businesses in neighborhoods vacant and in limbo while the decades-old project continues to limp forward. The Senior Pastoral Alliance, organized and previously led by Lazard, supported One Acadiana in the business organization’s efforts to rally the completion of the Connector when the design activities revived in 2015. 

Ground-up redevelopment is the preferred strategy. Calling for a “reconstituting” of the defunct North Lafayette Redevelopment Board, the agenda pushes for future redevelopment strategies to work with existing neighborhood organizations, like the McComb-Veazey Coterie and others, to encourage small business development and community-oriented housing that attracts mixed-income families. Most of the 1,500 adjudicated properties in Lafayette Parish are in Northside neighborhoods. Consolidated government has put few resources into moving the orphaned, tax-delinquent properties back into commerce. LCG’s planning and zoning department inherited the task, and doesn’t have dedicated staff for processing. Lafayette Habitat for Humanity is one of the few organizations that have taken advantage of the program, using the program’s preference for donating the properties to nonprofit and neighborhood organizations to patch together owner-occupied pocket neighborhoods. 

“There definitely aren’t enough resources,” Lazard says, explaining the rationale for revisiting an independent development board. “It needs to be an entity by itself, because the government is very slow, especially planning and zoning. We need an entity that moves and does what it needs to do and moves at its own speed.” 

The document reflects a consensus of those who put it together. The coalition intentionally excluded politicians and candidates. Mayor-president hopeful Carlos Harvin was asked to excuse himself when he declared his candidacy late in election qualifying. Organizations responded to what Lazard says was a “clarion call” to participate.

What to watch for: How the agenda surfaces in the final stretch of campaigning before the Oct. 12 primary and beyond. Some of the coalition’s talking points have made it into the election dialogue, but issues like parishwide drainage, a somewhat less urgent issue in most Northside neighborhoods, have dominated the campaign trail. Northside’s decline is generations in the making, and an about-face will require a commitment from leadership not limited to districts and seats of power that traditionally represent the black community.

Basin Dance Collective tackles sports with new dance mash-up opening this week

Basin Dance Collective mashes up sports and dance, exploring parallels between the two and their relationship to humanity.

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Flare-up on jail funding previews tough sledding for the future parish council

The gist: A public spat between the sheriff and the Robideaux administration over jail funding is closing out the end of budget preparation. The sheriff wants parish government to shell out $1.7 million more to fund jail expenses and has brought lawyers to bear. 

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Get caught up, quickly: The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center is funded by a combined property tax that partially funds both the jail and the parish courthouse, services mandated by the state. Historically, the jail has taken the lion’s share of that millage, which was created to fund much smaller outfits at both facilities decades ago. Parish government is hard-pressed to pay more out of its general fund for state mandated services generally. 

What does the sheriff want? $1.7 million in contracted salaries for jail expenses like medical and mental health care, food service, maintenance, laundry, all of which are services mandated by the state, according to LPSO Chief Deputy Carlos Stout. The revenues would come from the parish general fund.

“We never considered this to be an argument,” Stout tells me. “It’s a difference of opinion about the way the law’s being interpreted. This is an issue that’s been discussed since 1992.”

What’s the dispute? Whether the state actually requires the parish to pay what Garber’s asking. The administration argues parish government isn’t responsible for costs associated with housing non-parish prisoners. Of 644 inmates currently housed at LPCC, roughly 55% is held on parish government’s behalf. City prisoners comprise the second largest share of the population at 24%. The remaining 20% is a mix of inmates housed for other Lafayette Parish municipalities, the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshal. In a memo to council members, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux touted a $500,000 increase in the proposed budget for “operational expenses.” Stout says that figure covers state mandated costs for housing prisoners and isn’t available to cover the contractual services needed.

Where’s the beef. Council members and sheriff’s officials have blamed the administration for failing to acknowledge the jail’s budget shortfall and opposing new taxes for the jail and district court system, proposed by council members in 2018. Robideaux maintains the budget is just fine and that the existing millages will grow enough over the long term to take care of business. In the memo published Tuesday, Robideaux pushed back against the criticism and suggested the issue could play out in a suit, pointing out that attorneys retained by the sheriff have pressed similar litigation elsewhere in the state. 

“I think what’s being overlooked in [Robideaux’s] projections are the capital improvement needs that require urgent attention for the courthouse,” Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. “When you see a surplus, that doesn’t even begin to cover the capital improvement needs.”

We can work it out. Robideaux has urged councilmembers to wait for further legal input before making any moves, budget-wise. The issue could be taken up after final adoption as a budget amendment by the current council or the next councils. Stout notes the LPSO brought the budget issue to the council and administration in April of this year. Conque, for his part, agrees with Robideaux’s suggestion to let the lawyers figure it out. 

Speaking of new councils. This is a great illustration of the serious budget pressure the new parish council will face. As Robideaux points out, paying the sheriff would likely mean cuts elsewhere in the parish budget, which last year briefly went into the red after the mayor-president’s plan to sell a parking garage fell through. Some argue this is precisely the sort of issue better addressed by a dedicated parish council. 

“When they start looking at the needs of the parish, it’s like ring around the rosey,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who serves on the council transition committee, tells me. “When the chairs are set somebody is going to be left standing up.” 

Why this matters. The parish budget is, objectively, a dumpster fire. While it takes in close to $100 million each year, most of the revenue is in dedicated funds. Unlocking the consolidated budget under the new split council configuration could put even more pressure on parish finances while capital needs for facilities like the jail and courthouse continue to grow. Political observers expect a difficult slog for those elected to the new parish council, and the political theater around the jail could be a glimpse of what’s to come. The budget is scheduled to be finalized at a special council meeting Thursday, but a flurry of amendments could delay adoption until later this month.

The foundations of Lafayette housing strategy

The gist: A cross-sector alliance of agencies, nonprofits and community organizers soft-launched a coalition to develop a comprehensive housing strategy for Lafayette Parish. 

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“The ultimate north star would be a comprehensive strategy for development in Lafayette’s core neighborhoods — strategies for actually making something happen,” Acadiana Housing Alliance co-chair and Lafayette Habitat for Humanity Director Melinda Taylor says. “You can talk forever with this kind of stuff, but you have to start on specific initiatives to get things moving.” 

The coalition launched in June and will reconvene every other month. A second meeting was held in August, organizing the alliance into segmented teams to tackle data collection, policy, neighborhood engagement, prep for a federal grant program and extending activities outside of Lafayette Parish. 

The issue by the numbers: 

  • 16.5% of Lafayette Parish residents live in poverty 
  • 55 – amount of affordable housing units per 100 low-income households. 
  • $52K median household income in Lafayette Parish 
  • $168K median home value 
  • 1,500 adjudicated properties parishwide, which contribute to blight and economic decline.

On paper, Lafayette’s comprehensive plan targets revitalizing the urban core. In theory, that means putting public resources and policies to work in the city’s aging neighborhoods, including closing gaps in housing. The plan has been slow to stimulate action, Taylor says, in part because of scant resources in LCG’s planning department, the agency in charge of that portion of PlanLafayette. (PlanLafayette is currently undergoing a fifth-year review.) Many neighborhoods in north Lafayette exceed 55% renter-occupied homes in their occupancy mix, demonstrating a tremendous decline in wealth concentration over the years, according to data compiled by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. Affluence and home ownership have scattered outward into surrounding municipalities, taking public resources and attention with them. 

A map showing concentrations of rental occupied housing in Acadiana. Courtesy Louisiana Housing Corporation.

The coalition prioritizes neighborhood collaboration in developing a comprehensive housing strategy. The approach models loosely on the success of Habitat’s work in McComb-Veazey, where the nonprofit and the McComb-Veazey coterie have worked to engage residents in planning and redevelopment activities. Habitat has been the prime mover thus far in pursuing acquisition of adjudicated properties — tax-delinquent properties orphaned by owners, essentially — from consolidated government. Last month Habitat moved to acquire 10 such properties, all vacant lots in McComb-Veazey, to build a small strip of owner-occupied homes. 

Coordination is everything. Disconnected funding sources and well-meaning but “siloed” housing organizations have operated in blind spaces. Meanwhile, siting new affordable housing projects in economically distressed areas has become a matter of controversy, as some nearby residents push back against developments they believe will exacerbate economic distress. 

One goal here is winning a Choice Neighborhoods grant. The federal program could overhaul Lafayette’s public housing stock and provide funding for broad community work around the initiative, Taylor says. Choice Neighborhood grants require substantial upfront planning work to demonstrate community buy-in. Other Louisiana municipalities — Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans — have successfully applied for the program, drawing down tens of millions of dollars to remake public housing. Lafayette is set to shut down a few dozen units that currently sit in a floodway, making them ineligible for renovation funding from the federal government. Without intervention, says Taylor, who sits on the Lafayette Housing Authority board, much of Lafayette’s public housing will become unlivable. 

Why this matters: Housing affordability isn’t an issue unique to Lafayette, nor is it unique to marginalized households. Many families struggle to make ends meet, a problem that could become more acute and difficult to resolve in Lafayette’s weakened economy and sluggish recovery. Much of the available data on local housing comes from higher altitudes like the U.S. Census Bureau, which makes snapshot estimates in between decennial censuses. The coalition’s data efforts could present a more accurate picture of economic conditions in the parish and the effects of regional development patterns. 

Calculate the increase to your tax bill from proposed library and airport millage increases

Property tax rates for the airport commission and the library system would be increased to voter-approved ceilings if the council passes a pair of ordinances introduced this week.

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Don’t really get the split council thing? We got ya covered.

It’s clear that there remains a lot of fog to lift on just what the hell is happening with local government next year. If you’re not a local political junkie, this explainer is for you.

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Path to two councils is uphill, and there isn’t much time to climb

The gist: A committee created to guide the transition to two councils met for the first time Tuesday, nine months after the vote creating the new government structure for Lafayette. Members of the 14-person body raised concerns about the complexity of the task and the tight window to get it done. 

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“This list is long; I’m not sure we can get to every single item,” transition committee chairman Jerry Luke LeBlanc warned of the group’s assignment in opening remarks following his election. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who convened the committee, set the tone for the meeting with an overview of the sticky points expected to vex future councils. The message was clear: This is going to be difficult to manage; let’s measure expectations of what can get done. 

The body is advisory only. Whatever changes the committee recommends will serve as signposts. The body now has legal authority to define how the new councils work. The real burden of making the transition go smoothly falls on the new councils and the new mayor-president, who will take office in January. 

You can see the committee’s full roster here. 

Organizing the committee began in early June, while the legal challenge of the charter amendments was wrapping up. Robideaux distributed an outline of upcoming landmines on Monday. Discussion of forming some kind of transition team dates back to December of last year, shortly after the measure was passed. 

I would much rather that this body would have been created two years ago to discuss the upcoming charter that was proposed and given to the public to vote on,” District Attorney Keith Stutes, a committee member, said. “I see a long, uphill climb here.”  

Can’t we all just get along? The amended charter provides little guidance on how to navigate potential disputes between the two councils, who are jointly responsible for the consolidated budget and must approve expenses for shared functions by separate majority votes. In the current budget, roughly $41 million in expenses are paid by combined parish and city revenues, with the city picking up around 80% of the tab. That cost-share — called cost allocation in the budget — is expected to be a thorny subject to tackle given the financial disparity between the city’s books and the parish’s. 

Put simply, the city has money and the parish doesn’t. That means the new parish council will start life gasping for air, while city council members work to lock down their dollars.

Learning curves abound. The two new councils will take office in five months with plenty of fresh faces. At least four of the five members of the parish council will be brand new officials, with no prior council experience. There is one open seat on the new city council, with all four incumbent seats contested. 

The committee itself has a steep learning curve. Most of the committee members, appointed by various parish organizations with stake on the council, are beginning the process with limited knowledge of how consolidated government currently works, particularly the labyrinthine budget processes used to navigate LCG’s various shared functions like public works, parks and recreation and the IT department. 

Fixing the charter (again) would be a much more difficult political undertaking. Super majorities of both councils — four votes on each — are required to amend the charter any further. That level of difficulty could limit the options the committee proposes. 

“I’m very concerned this is going to be a poison pill,” committee member and Clerk of Court Louis Perrett says of the high bar for amending the charter. Perret believes separating the mayor-president position and reforming how the separate councils approve joint budgets are necessary steps to make this work, changes that would require further charter amendments and another public vote. Mayor-president candidates Simone Champagne and Josh Guillory have voiced support for splitting up that office, as has council candidate Keith Kisbaugh. 

What now? The current consolidated council is poised to adopt a budget for next year, which will cover 10 months of government by two councils. There had been discussion of creating a split budget to anticipate the new offices, but Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said Tuesday it may be an easier starting point for newly minted officials to work with a familiar budget. The adopted budget can be amended next year, as the two councils continue to build a plane in flight. 

What to watch for: Meetings and ideas. The committee is expected to meet twice a month to work through the bullet points defined by Robideaux. Already, members floated fixes to foreseen quagmires, including more charter amendments and joint service agreements for shared functions. Regardless if these any of these ideas have merit, taking the committee’s advice will be the new government’s call.

Council readies to dredge the Vermilion, but waits for the Corps of Engineers

The gist: A resolution adopted unanimously by the City-Parish Council Tuesday formally urges action on dredging the Vermilion River. Council members and dredging advocates are now targeting funding and political help while the Army Corps of Engineers completes a dredging study. 

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There is immense political pressure to act. Facing repeated floods and sustained anxiety since August 2016, many residents say little has been done to protect them. Dredging advocates Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon have won the ears of officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, and have rallied flood victims and politicos alike to take comprehensive steps to manage regional waters. The tip of that spear is dredging the Vermilion River to remove years of accumulated. 

“The Vermilion River is in a state of emergency,” Dixon told the council Tuesday night. An August navigation depth survey by the Corps of Engineers shows clogging throughout the river in Lafayette Parish, which Dixon believes is the culprit behind increasingly more common flood events. 

LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river. Before the Corps will OK dredging, it’s studying the impact it would have locally and downriver in Vermilion Parish, where officials have asked for caution. 

The Vermilion has reached flood stage five times in the last year. Indeed, over the last three decades, flood events along the Vermilion have increased dramatically, a phenomenon that correlates with population growth and accompanying development. 

Climate and development appear to play key roles. Some evidence suggests that rain events are getting more intense. Researchers at LSU found that southern Louisiana is getting more so-called “convection showers” — high intensity downpours that burst over shorter intervals, often overwhelming drainage systems. Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish has added acres of rooftops and pavement that shed more water more quickly into drainage channels and, ultimately, the river. 

Public Works Director Mark Dubroc attributes the increase in flood events to those rainfalls. Dubroc has questioned whether dredging will have the impact touted by advocates, arguing earlier this month that there is little evidence to support claims that dredging would have substantial benefit. More to the point, Dubroc is concerned that conclusions are getting ahead of proof. He doesn’t oppose dredging in and of itself, but he questions whether the benefit would be worth the cost. 

“As public works director, I need substantive, identifiable benefit,” Dubroc tells me. 

UL Lafayette researchers are modeling the effect of dredging the river. Responding to the public momentum, Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL, has used a detailed river model to calculate the efficacy of dredging.

UL’s model ran a scenario in which 20 miles of the Vermilion was dredged at varying depths and widths, including leveling the shoals at Coulee Mine and Rotary Point, identified by the Corps’ August survey. In a simulation of the August 2016 storms, the most extensive dredging modeled reduced water levels by at most half a foot and only at the Surrey Street bridge and Coulee Ile Des Cannes. 

“The benefit is not universal in terms of the location. How much and where you dredge” is what really matters, Habib says. It remains an “open question,” he adds, whether more routine storms would see better results. A 1995 study by the Corps of Engineers suggests that dredging could see greater benefit in smaller storms, estimating a 2-foot reduction in peak water levels after 35 miles of excavation at a cost of around $30 million. Habib’s team will run the smaller storm scenarios through its Vermilion model, which includes more recent data and conditions. 

Despite the unknowns, council members are chasing funding. Councilwoman Nanette Cook proposed a $5 million line item for dredging the river in an amendment to LCG’s upcoming budget. It’s not clear how much dredging that dollar amount would accomplish and where the money would come from. Elected officials are targeting state and federal pools, including a $1.2 billion flood control package authorized by Congress last year. Local dollars could be freed up by shifting funds from a handful of road projects and into stormwater diversion, as Mayor-President Joel Robideaux suggested in his introductory budget. An aide with Higgins’ office told the council earlier this month that the Corps estimated the cost of dredging hot spots — i.e. the shoals at Rotary Point and Coulee Mine — to be $5 million. Reached for comment Wednesday, a Corps spokesman could not identify the source of that figure by press time. 

People are tired of studies, but studies are underway. LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river and will not receive one until after the Corps’ impact study is completed later this year. At issue is whether dredging upstream in Lafayette Parish could cause saltwater intrusion or loss of marshland in Vermilion Parish, among other complications.

What to watch for: The outcome of further study. It remains disputed among experts what effect dredging might have and what the cost-benefit would be. Come December, some unknowns will be resolved when the Corps completes its study.

Trapped and anxious, Quail Hollow residents are tired of waiting for flood fixes

The gist: Dozens gathered at a private home in Lafayette’s Quail Hollow neighborhood to get answers from public officials on efforts to relieve flooding in what was one of the hardest hit areas in the floods of August 2016. Begging for projects that would make inches of difference, residents were told there was meaningfully little that could be done in the near term. 

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Work on a coulee lateral that drains part of the neighborhood has stalled. Two gas lines were discovered by work crews in the last few weeks, according to Public Works drainage coordinator Fred Trahan, pausing cleanup on the ditch that runs behind Cornelius Street, near Comeaux High School. Most of the homes on Cornelius flooded in 2016. Some have flooded again since. 

LCG’s drainage project dashboard lists the project as under budget and on schedule to have been finished at the end of June. Residents have been clamoring for the work to be done on the lateral — designated Isaac Verot Coulee Lateral 7 — since 2016. Trahan said in an email to The Current that the project was at one time ahead of schedule, but weather delays and the discovery of the two gas lines interrupted work. 

Quail Hollow and its sister neighborhoods aren’t designed to handle recent flooding events. Trahan noted the 40-year-old subdivisions were built long before developers were required to add detention facilities to capture stormwater and reduce runoff. Increasingly intensifying rains are overwhelming a system built for lighter rains. Public Works is considering a diversion project for the bowl-shaped basin, an intervention expected to be costly and long in the making. 

“Can we do it? Yes. But it won’t solve the problem,” Trahan said, explaining that the backflows in 25-year storms would still topple into homes. 

Cost could prohibit any real solution. Meanwhile, people are trapped in their homes. What interventions have been offered, many by frustrated residents, are unlikely to shave much more than an inch off of rising water levels during a big storm. Several homes have gone on the market since 2016, with no takers. Much of the neighborhood is now part of a 100-year flood zone, meaning at elevated risk, according to FEMA flood maps adopted in 2018. That wasn’t the case when many residents bought their homes years ago. 

“One day, it may be cheaper to do buyouts,” Trahan told me. 

The coulee behind Cornelius can’t handle the added volume of water shedding into it from widespread development and urbanization, UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland told me last year. Kinsland’s mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, and he surveyed the area following the 2016 floods. He’s studied the relationship between urbanization and increased flooding in Lafayette Parish. In Kinsland’s opinion, routine maintenance wouldn’t prevent flooding related to the collision of intensifying rains and proliferating pavement. 

Officials promise that efforts are underway. Councilwoman Nanette Cook and State Rep. Stuart Bishop, who represent the neighborhoods at local and state levels, respectively, reiterated steps taken in their arenas of power. Cook reminded residents of a proposition on ballots this fall to divert $8 million in library funds to drainage and other capital projects, and noted she added a $5 million line item to LCG’s budget for spot dredging in the Vermilion River, a project generally believed to have limited, if any, impact on flooding in Quail Hollow. Bishop, for his part, promised to push the state department of transportation to clear out blockage under state bridges and pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move on the Vermilion. 

“Obviously, we don’t want to leave, because we’re here fighting for our homes,” said Melanie Roy, a Cornelius Drive resident. Roy demanded that nearby retention ponds, which she says maintain a high water level for aesthetic purposes, be lowered ahead of named storms. Trahan conceded it was feasible but cautioned that it may not do much good. 

“Can we try it?” Roy replied, exasperated and drawing applause from her fellow residents. 

Why this matters: Stormwater management is a quagmire in the parish and a political lightning rod. Simply put, no two drainage problems are alike, and in a time of limited resources, competing concerns are inevitable. In some cases, authorities are throwing pennies at $10 problems. Meanwhile, residents are emotionally drained by years of flood anxiety and what they see as inaction.