You asked. Here are how the 2019 candidates responded.

Community Agenda 2019

Acadiana Mall’s new owners get Macy’s property tax bill slashed


The gist: Acadiana Mall’s new owners appealed the assessment of the Macy’s building and got a big reduction from the tax assessor, but New York-based Namdar Realty did not appeal the value placed on the mall itself — one that has remained exceptionally low over the past decade.  

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COLUMN: The elephant in this election is Lafayette’s billion dollar infrastructure deficit

Years of kicking the infrastructure can down the road has finally caught up with us.

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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.

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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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Lenny Lemoine invests in historic Whitney Bank building in New Orleans’ CBD

The gist: Within months of selling a major stake in his construction firm to Bernhard Capital Partners, Lafayette businessman Lenny Lemoine has teamed up with Baton Rouge developer Mike Wampold to buy the 108-year-old former Whitney National Bank building on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. 

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Lafayette General merging with Ochsner Health System

The gist: Wednesday morning Lafayette General Health and Ochsner Health System ended years of speculation in local health care circles, sparked largely by a 2015 strategic partnership, that the two would eventually become one. 

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Economist bullish on job growth projections for Lafayette in 2020

The gist: Economist Loren Scott projects that the Lafayette economy will add 7,200 jobs over the next two years, according to his annual outlook presented Wednesday at an event hosted by One Acadiana. Scott’s rosy forecast rests on what he calls “heroic assumptions” about the growth of the U.S. economy and the prospect of more drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico. 

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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. 

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Schoolhouse Baroque!

Lafayette Middle’s historic auditorium gets a second act playing host to New Orleans chamber ensemble Lyrica Baroque

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Extending Louisiana Avenue grows Lafayette the wrong way

Spending millions of city dollars to build a road through a cane field isn’t a new idea. We can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes.

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Robideaux vetoes Louisiana Avenue extension, kicking the ball back to the council

The gist: As expected, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux vetoed a council budget amendment that would have kept $7 million in a project to complete Louisiana Avenue. Instead the money will go into a stormwater diversion fund he proposed at budget introduction. The council could override the veto with a six-member majority, an unlikely outcome. 

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LETTER: R-E-L-A-X on the charter amendment transition

Although the amended Charter probably does add a layer of complexity to government operations, it also provides much-needed clarity to citizens regarding who is responsible, and who should be held accountable, for government decisions.

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