To put it bluntly, to win, Fix the Charter needed the city to show up, and it did. City precincts edged the parish and saw bigger margins of victory.
Decode the fuzzy math with our fire district millage calculator. The Current’s first Civi tool for civic engagement.
Council is figuring out its new superpower on tax exemptions. That gives economic developers the jitters.
The gist: The City-Parish Council rejected two property tax exemptions Tuesday night, including one for Stuller Inc. That racks up four defeats since local agencies gained a say in a state tax incentive program that economic developers believe is an essential tool for business recruitment and retention.
Stuller sought roughly $100,000 in property tax abatement over 10 years, through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The jewelry manufacturer’s application claimed a $1.7 million investment in its manufacturing operations that would add six jobs to its existing local workforce of around 1,200. A council skeleton crew of five, exercising the relatively new power to approve ITEP applications, voted unanimously to reject Stuller’s application and that of Advanced Products and Systems, a Scott-based manufacturer in front of the council for the second time this year.
Hating incentive programs is all the rage. See what I did there? (I’ll show myself out.) Portions of the right and left seem to agree on this issue. Progressives say it’s corporate welfare. Free-market purists say it’s unfair. See the hubbub over Amazon’s HQ2. Or conservative Councilman William Theriot’s axiom, “We should take some from some and exempt others.”
Growing resentment on either flank could pressure politicians, locally and nationally, to halt or rein in incentive programs. Consider that the last four ITEP applications to come before the council were rejected.
"We need to come together on a better approach," LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me. "This situation is very difficult. It reflects my worst fears when the rules were changed."
For decades, ITEP was a rubber stamp. Until 2016, that is, when Gov. John Bel Edwards reformed the program by executive order, requiring applicants to show some job growth and empowering local taxing bodies to approve the exemptions. Critics of ITEP argue the state was wheeling and dealing with local money. Together Louisiana, an advocacy group organized to fight ITEP, claims the program exempted $4.9 billion in property taxes for companies statewide in 2016.
$3.7 million. That’s the total amount of exemptions Stuller has claimed through the program over the last 10 years, according to The Advertiser. Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux said Tuesday night that the actual amount is lower, given the program accounts for depreciation.
$17 million. That’s Stuller’s property tax bill over the last 10 years, according to Comeaux. Coming up short of an endorsement, the assessor defended the program in remarks to the council, noting that $33 million in parish tax revenue is “lost” to the homestead exemption each year, versus around $2.5 million annually to ITEP.
$89 million. That’s the local household income produced by Stuller’s payroll, according to Stuller CIO Michael DeHart.
The council’s vote sends a message. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, it’s a good or bad one. Some fear the vote will have a chilling effect on business recruitment down the line. That problem, they say, is exacerbated so long as companies don’t know what the rules of the road are in Lafayette Parish. Others believe it's high time the program was stopped.
“We have to provide a level of certainty to companies so they know the financial implications of their investments in our area,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s executive vice president for economic development.
Some parishes have adopted a uniform approach, according to Councilman Bruce Conque, who voted against the Stuller and APC exemptions. Conque says he believes ITEP should be used to recruit new businesses rather than expand existing ones.
Conque said Tuesday night that there lacks a “coordination of efforts” among the local taxing authorities that now have a seat at the ITEP table — LCG, the Lafayette Parish School Board and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Conque tells me Sheriff Mark Garber was unaware of his authority on ITEP as recently as early this year.
“None of the governing bodies have any specific guidelines by which people who want to apply for an exemption can know the rules,” Conque says. “It’s a gamble.”
Lagniappe. Should Saturday’s proposition to create separate city and parish councils succeed, ITEP applicants could be denied by either the city or the parish council.
The gist: The current mayor is against the proposal to create separate city and parish councils, in its current form. Former mayors support the effort. So does former LUS Director Terry Huval and even Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter. The lines are drawn, but a lot of people still don’t know what to think about the proposition. Undecideds are in the driver’s seat ahead of Saturday’s election.
Twenty percent of voters are undecided. That’s according to a scientific poll conducted by pro-amendment Fix the Charter PAC. Organizer Kevin Blanchard says the group’s message plays well in the parish, but the swath of unswayed voters keeps the election up in the air. “I like our chances,” he tells me.
This week former mayors Dud Lastrapes and Joey Durel penned a letter supporting the amendments. Read it here. Durel has been an active supporter of the campaign for some time. Lastrapes is one of the last mayors of Lafayette before consolidation. The campaign has gained institutional support where previous attempts at substantial changes to local government had not. Fix the Charter has raised about $60,000 to date, with TV and radio ad buys airing this week. In 2011, an effort to end consolidation failed miserably, with virtually all spending activated in support of the status quo.
Opponents say the proposal smacks of corruption, will raise taxes and will cede too much of the city to liberals. That’s the mixed bag of complaints circulated by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes and its fellow travelers. The page says the amendments were drafted too swiftly and in the dark, giving rise to suspicion of ulterior motives.
LCAT posts have stoked suspicion that the amendment campaign is really for the benefit of development company Southern Lifestyle Development, given the company employs several figures in Fix the Charter PAC. Most recently, the group has claimed split councils would pave the way for Drag Queen Story Time, a tangent to the debate aimed at the heart LCAT's base. The page and its companion organization Citizens for a New Louisiana are the only public opposition to materialize, outside the mayor-president.
After months of silence, Robideaux has begun fighting the amendments. The mayor-president penned an op-ed on Friday to make his case against the proposition. Robideaux had yet to weigh in on the topic, even as he was probed for his opinion by council members back in August. Recently, he had privately told amendment supporters that he would withhold public comment. The flip irritated some of his erstwhile allies.
"I was disappointed and surprised that the mayor took a stance after he told me he wasn't [going to take a public position]," says Herb Schilling, owner of Schilling Distributing Company. Schilling was one of Robideaux’s biggest supporters in his 2015 campaign. The Northside businessman has backed the charter amendments, circulating a letter to Upper Lafayette addresses.
Robideaux’s op-ed argues the configuration of proposed council districts strips too much power from the city over parish money for drainage and roads, and that the parallel councils are headed for deadlock without a “mechanism” for resolving conflict. Robideaux has since taken to Facebook to sound alarms that the parish council makeup — only two of the seats would come from majority city of Lafayette districts — will make future charter amendments difficult to achieve.
“Any future efforts to change or improve the charter to help the City of Lafayette would be much more difficult, if not impossible,” Robideaux writes. He also created a hashtag. #LetsGetItRight. Because that’s what you do now.
It’s unclear if Robideaux, badly damaged in reputation from the LUS/Bernhard affair, has much clout. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that Robideaux’s opposition has driven some undecideds to support the proposition.
Fix the Charter rebutted Robideaux’s op-ed on Friday, calling the mayor-president’s concerns “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” The way supporters see it, gaining sole control of the city’s substantially larger resources is more important than control over the parish budget. To wit, in the current budget, the city has financed $72 million in capital improvements, including $42 million in roads, all by its lonesome.
Meanwhile, the parish is selling garages to make ends meet. As to the mechanism for resolving conflict, Fix the Charter President Carlee Alm-LaBar says that’s the mayor-president’s job.
“Citizens outside the city of Lafayette are equally as frustrated,” says Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, chalking up dysfunction in parish government to bad leadership. Ritter fundamentally supports the idea that the city of Lafayette should have its own council, like Youngsville. “In looking at it from the vantage point of someone in a city that has a five person council and mayor, I know how effective we’ve been,” he tells my colleague Leslie Turk.
What we’re watching on Saturday: The geographic breakdown, win or lose. Conventional wisdom has it that parish voters hold all the cards, although the 2011 deconsolidation vote got clocked in city districts too. This time around, city voters could be moved by the inclusion of an amendment to shield LUS from management contracts like what Bernhard Capital Partners proposed to public uproar. Retired LUS Director Terry Huval has supported the effort with a “protect LUS” message. On the parish side, Fix the Charter’s Blanchard says parish voters are receptive to the message that a dedicated council would improve accountability on parishwide issues. We’ll tag this election #TooCloseToCall.
Jewelry maker JelLyn Morvant’s latest collection marries luxury and recycled goods, artistry and craftsmanship, earthiness and glam.
That appeal to basic American principles is an about-face of the economic pragmatism used to justify consolidation in the first place. First they wanted to save money. Now they want to save democracy.
Aguillard’s decision caps off an anguished and twisting run-up to Saturday’s vote on the controversial tax. Where once the chief appeared to disagree with his rank and file, he now finds their interests aligned against the sheriff.
The gist: If you read the tech blogs, there’s been a big crunch on the crypto market. After a bonkers 2017, the SEC has become a major buzzkill, signaling intent to sheriff the crypto wild west. That could actually make LCG’s crypteaux concept more attractive.
I don’t understand anything you just said. That’s OK. The broad strokes are that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux announced this year that he wants Lafayette to launch a digital currency as an alternative means of public finance. Last year there was a gold rush on the stuff, particularly around Bitcoin, with cryptocurrencies netting billions in profits for investors. There’s been something of a correction in the sector this year, capped off by a ruling by the SEC that initial coin offerings – called ICOs — should register with the federal government and be regulated like any other type of security. Observers have suggested that the developments frosted over what was once the hottest place for investment.
Ok, I understand it marginally better. Good deal. So here’s the thing, lots of people tried to cash in on the cryptocraze. There are digital currencies that support journalism, others that pay cam girls. In Ohio, you can pay your taxes with Bitcoin. The sector attracted a lot of criminal actors and folks that plain didn’t know what they were doing. In a recent talk, Crypteaux architect Joe Castille — perhaps better known as a political consultant, and the ghostwriter of Brian Pope’s demise — characterized the world of crypto entrepreneurship as one lousy with naifs waving white-papers. There’s an argument to be made that the SEC’s ruling will clear out the riff raff like a brushfire, leaving only vetted concepts to thrive in a healthier crypto ecosystem.
Keep in mind that municipal securities are exempt from SEC registration. At least that’s what Investopedia tells me. So while it’s tempting to fear the SEC’s rules on ICOs as a valve closing, in theory a municipally backed ICO could squirt through the regulatory gaps. “Different laws apply,” Castille tells me.
What’s the latest on crypteaux? That’s unclear at this point. Robideaux set up a public innovation trust earlier this year — and put himself on it — but the board has yet to meet. The parishwide trust is a possible vehicle for funds raised in a municipal ICO. LCG recently paid IBM and mega-consultant KPMG $150,000 for developing a Smart City road map that suggests crypteaux and e-residency, concepts championed and researched by Castille, are worth exploring. Castille and his new company, Crypto Research LLC, studies the application of cryptocurrencies and blockchain — a whole other enchilada —in the public sector as a means of addressing budget problems in tax-averse communities. Sound familiar?
Is this crazy? Not necessarily. But it’s a thorny space and one likely to be a tough sell for your average voter. Just because the SEC’s recent crackdown doesn’t necessarily apply to crypteaux doesn’t make the path forward clear.
The gist: The charter amendment proposition is at the mercy of a low-turnout election that features a pair of taxes and a lackluster secretary of state race. Organized and adequately funded advocacy for the change could squeak out a win where full deconsolidation failed.
Last time deconsolidation was on the ballot, it got clobbered. Before you pitchfork me, Charter Fixers, I understand this isn’t exactly deconsolidation. But it’s the best analog available to set a basis for comparison.
That was October 2011, a big state and local ballot year. Turnout was fine, by relative standards, with 34 percent of registered Lafayette Parish voters participating. The results were predictable. Bobby Jindal took home 71 percent of the local vote. State Rep. Joel Robideaux coasted to re-election with a 58-point margin in the parish. Voters rejected a $561 million bond proposition from the school board by a wide margin. And they said “nah,” 63 percent to 37 percent, to a full-stop dissolution of consolidated government following a one-sided race in favor of the status quo.
Turnout is expected to be low. And that could favor the charter amendment, says UL Lafayette political science prof Pearson Cross. “I think it would at least give them a chance,” he says. Cross says voters tend to resist change, and they didn’t go for the last major attempt at restructuring local government. Around 2,000 early ballots had been cast as of Wednesday afternoon, reflecting a slower rate than October's vote. Cross says he could see voter participation of less than 20 percent.
This is a different proposition with different dynamics. Deconsolidation faced an uphill battle. True PAC, a political action committee founded to fight the effort, raised around $30,000 and garnered support from big names in local politics. Don Bacqué, a former state rep and charter commission member, formed True PAC. He now backs the charter amendment and has lent his voice to Fix the Charter PAC, the campaign supporting the split. That’s a major dynamic flip. Fix the Charter has raised around $40,000 for this effort and will hit the streets this week with mailers and an upbeat ground game.
Original charter framers support the change. Five members of the nine-person charter commission that proposed consolidation in the early 1990s have signed on in support of split council amendment, arguing in a statement that the charter, as LCG's constitution, was always intended to be honed.
"The proposed amendments to the charter improve on our original vision," the statement reads. "While there is no perfect proposal, these amendments are a step in the right direction."
Ed Abell, James Jackson, Jean Kreamer, Paul Colomb and Alan D. Hebert are signatories to the endorsement.
Opposition is scattered. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective. Activist conservatives aligned with Citizens for a New Louisiana/Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes oppose the proposition. Michael Lunsford, executive director of Citizens for a New Louisiana, says the groups will be sending mailers, targeting issues on the Dec. 8 ballot — “That’s what we do,” he tells me — but didn’t specify whether the campaign would single the charter amendment out. LCAT, the Facebook portal for Citizens founded by Lunsford and others, has hammered the proposition as a “non-fix” cooked up to raise taxes.
LCAT's opposition has taken a wide berth. At one time, the page posted speculation that the proposition could be a Trojan Horse built to sell LUS. Former LUS Director Terry Huval has since endorsed the charter split as a way of protecting LUS. Most recently, LCAT suggested that several key figures in the Fix the Charter movement — former LCG Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard, former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, former city-parish attorney Stuart Breaux and Councilman Jay Castille — are pushing the split for the benefit of their employer, Southern Lifestyle Development. Voiced as a question, the innuendo falls short of a direct, baseless claim (none of the parties are named).
Regardless of truth or variety, the scattershot opposition could nevertheless be effective. It does fall short of a concerted, well-financed campaign, however.
“I haven’t seen real mobilization against it,” says Cross of the charter amendment opposition in general. “It could be that they’re banking on people not going for the last one.”
A city fix that’s up to the parish? That’s how I’ve generally read it. It’s part of the perversion of consolidation: city residents will have their government determined by people who don’t live there.
But consider this: The 2011 deconsolidation vote, which would have delivered full autonomy to the city of Lafayette, arguably died in the city. While parish voters overwhelmingly opposed it, the deconsolidation campaign failed to deliver large portions of the city.
Fix the Charter's success may depend on winning the debate within city limits.
Disclosure: Southern Lifestyle Development has advertised in The Current.
How Sheriff Mark Garber’s sales tax attempts to solve all his financial troubles in one fell swoop, at the risk of failure.
In three years, Lafayette’s comedy scene has blown up and shows no signs of slowing