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Community Agenda 2019

Business + Innovation

Retail and home sales up, unemployment down, but there’s more to this story

Recent headlines indicate 2018 might be the year our economy started recovering. But there’s ample evidence that any optimism should be guarded given the situation our economy’s in.

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Looks like Terry Huval was a bargain

The gist: Lafayette’s future utilities director could make $250,000, close to the salary retired LUS Director Terry Huval earned to run both LUS and LUS Fiber. The council introduced a measure to bump the budgeted salary to that figure for the newly independent position.

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It was originally budgeted at $150,000 when Robideaux moved to split LUS and LUS Fiber into separate departments during last fall’s budget process. He pegged the Fiber director’s salary then at $115,000. Huval was far and away the highest paid public employee in Lafayette Consolidated Government, a distinction that drew some criticism from budget hawks like Robideaux. (Robideaux, according to some, once bragged that no one in his administration would make $250,000.) Some council members pushed back on Robideaux’s original budget, saying good talent couldn’t be had at those prices.

“If we know these numbers are too low, what are we doing?” Kenneth Boudreaux pressed Robideaux at the time.

“I don’t think it’s enough if that’s what you’re asking me,” Robideaux replied.

So why $250,000 and why now? By law, Robideaux must get approval from a contract engineer to fill the position. That consultant, NewGen Strategies & Solutions (no affiliation with NextGEN Utility Systems, the failed LUS suitor), advised the administration that a new director for a utility the size of LUS (a $300 million enterprise) should cost around $250,000.  

We still don’t know how much a Fiber director will cost. That’s a separate issue, not managed by NewGen. Boudreaux, who clamored Tuesday night about the new salary, produced an estimate from 2013 that a Fiber director should cost $200,000. If that figure is close to right, new directors of LUS and LUS Fiber combined would cost $450,000.

“That’s $450,000 without even blinking,” Boudreaux told me ahead of the meeting, frustrated with the hurdles jumped to raise LCG employee salaries 2 percent last year, including an override of Robideaux’s veto.

What to watch for: How quickly a new director is recruited and installed. Current interim Director Jeff Stewart, a Huval lieutenant, says he’s interested in the gig. Stewart is already spearheading a public process for the electric system’s integrated resource plan — essentially a long-term planning process that determines how much power is needed and where it will come from — a first for LUS. Stewart tells me that process should be underway in June and could take a year or more. That means the new director could come on board in the middle of a transformative time.

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After years waiting, The Advocate swoops on The Daily Advertiser

The Advocate has pounced on The Daily Advertiser’s newsroom, snatching up several reporters and a senior staffer in a coup that could cripple Lafayette’s flailing daily.

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2018 Lafayette Parish retail sales projected to top $6 billion

The gist: Year-to-date sales in Lafayette Parish approached $5.5 billion through November 2018, according to a release from LEDA, on pace to surpass $6 billion. That puts local commerce in shouting distance of 2014’s $6.4 billion peak with a month of reports to go.  

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Total taxable sales in the parish were up 4.4 percent from 2017 and 5.6 percent from 2016 in that time period.

But the city’s lagging behind: The city of Lafayette performed the worst among municipalities, up only 1.4 percent, compared with 28.2 percent in Duson, 19.3 percent in Youngsville, 17.3 percent in Scott, and 9.2 percent in Carencro. Even unincorporated Lafayette Parish beat the city with a 3.7 percent uptick.

More than 70 percent of the total retail sales in the parish happen in the city of Lafayette. It’s still the region’s shopping anchor. In the city, apparel, general merchandise and building material sales are all down from last year. LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux says that’s in part due to belt-tightening and a correction from flood-related boosts in construction.

“The downturn forced people to curtail spending,” Gothreaux says. “Apparel is something that can easily be put off, and the sales numbers over the past four years reflect that. People focused on purchasing necessities — looking for the best bargains — or may have occasionally splurged at the hot, new store. The 2016 flood spurred a modest increase in building materials sales that has since returned to pre-flood levels.”

Up but still down: While the parish’s performance might be up from last year, sales through November were off more than $300 million from 2014. The cities of Lafayette and Broussard and the unincorporated parts of the parish are all down more than $100 million each from where they were back then.

Up and up and up: But some parts of the parish have seen a steady rise in retail sales despite the economic downturn in the parish the last few years. Youngsville‘s up about $60 million since 2014, Scott about $40 million and Carencro more than $50 million.

Duson‘s all over the place: If you compare 2018 to 2014, Duson’s down about $1 million. But if you compare it to 2013, it’s up almost $11 million. But then if you compare it to 2012, it’s down more than $24 million. What’s going on in Duson?

More sales = more revenue for government, but in a good way: When total taxable sales go up, so too do sales tax revenues for schools, city governments, and economic development districts. That means more money for government without having to raise taxes. Modest increases in sales tax receipts in the unincorporated area helped patch a temporary budget hole when a plan to sell a parish-owned parking garage to the city fell through. Unincorporated Lafayette parish has been routinely raided of its sales tax revenue through annexations by nearby towns and cities.

Good news, but … Rising retail sales is an indisputably good thing. But Lafayette still has a ways to grow to recover lost ground. So while we celebrate finally getting some good economic news, let’s not forget that this just suggests the bleeding has stopped. There is still a lot of healing left to do.

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Mixed forecast at Acadiana Mall: controversial owner in, H&M on the way

A national retail operator with a reputation for buying troubled malls and investing little in them bought Acadiana Mall in mid-January.

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Robideaux’s library accusations are not grounded in fact

The mayor-president has accused the library system of defrauding taxpayers to the tune of $21 million dollars. Unfortunately for his credibility, the facts don’t back up his claims.

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Moving library money only looks like a good idea

Mayor-President Robideaux wants to rededicate $18 million from the library’s fund balance to pave roads and clean coulees, but there are hidden costs that must be accounted for.

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LED is helping IBM tempt Lafayette talent to Baton Rouge

At a job fair tomorrow at South Louisiana Community College IBM will try to recruit people to move from Lafayette to Baton Rouge with the help with LED.

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Possible Gannett buyout underscores Lafayette’s fragile news ecosystem

The gist: Gannett, the publicly traded company that publishes USA Today and The Daily Advertiser, is the target of a buyout by a hedge fund-backed firm known to gut newsrooms. The Advertiser’s faced layoffs in recent years, and the buyout could lead to more.

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Digital First Media has offered $1.3 billion in what amounts to a hostile takeover, according to some national reports. Digital First is primarily owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known to cut costs on troubled assets. Digital First owns 7.5 percent of Gannett already and has made previous offers to acquire the company.

What to cut when there’s nothing left? Denver Post journalists revolted when Digital First took over the Colorado paper in 2018 and cut 30 newsroom staffers. In Lafayette, there’s a dark upside: There may not be much meat on The Advertiser’s bone for Digital First to cut. (In fact, it appears that Digital First’s cost-cutting assumptions could be flawed, according to USA Today.) The Advertiser took it on the chin in 2016 when a few reporters were laid off as part of a 2 percent workforce purge at Gannett properties nationwide. Gannett owns five Louisiana papers, some of which have reduced service to only a few days week.

The Advertiser’s executive editor took early retirement. James Flachsenhaar, a 20-year company man, announced his departure, effective Feb. 1. (Flachsenhaar declined to comment for this story.) The company has pivoted sales messaging to hammer the paper’s value as a community resource, asking customers to buy subscriptions to support the paper’s work. That’s a common approach (one The Current uses, too) as newspapers have struggled to find financial footing on shrinking revenue. The number of working journalists in U.S. has declined about 45 percent since 2004.

“Guess I have to kick ass for whatever time I have left,” veteran Advertiser reporter Claire Taylor wrote in a Facebook post sharing the potential buyout news.

Local journalism in Lafayette is in trouble. It’s unclear whether the buyout will go through or, if it does, whether The Advertiser will suffer the same fate as other Digital First properties. Some analysts believe Gannett will decline the offer. Still, the local media buzz is not positive. But what this really shows is how thin the local reporting ranks are. Lafayette has no mainstream news outlets owned locally. The fate of local information is in precarious hands.

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Robideaux seeks ‘visionary’ director to evolve LCG’s IT department

The gist: Since taking office, Robideaux has flirted with smart city initiatives and floated ambitious tech concepts like municipal cryptocurrency. Now, at the end of his first term, he’s seeking a permanent IT director who can help implement his vision.

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Robideaux is looking for a visionary: The job description posted last week describes an IT director who would be heavily involved in updating the department, a $9.7 million division that’s primarily charged with tech support services across consolidated government. The expanded role would include a hand in the administration’s smart city programs. Last year, the administration spent $150,000 to develop a smart city roadmap with IBM and mega-consultant KPMG that includes projects like making Lafayette a Smart City test bed, enhancing cyber security, implementing digital payments for government services and Crypteaux. The job posting says the new director would play an “integral role” in the roadmap. You can see the full roadmap here.

“It’s definitely fair to say the position of the director is evolving into one of a visionary and not just a person with a strong tech knowledge base and background,” Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me.

LCG’s strategic roadmap envisions more tech personnel. The Smart City roadmap contemplates adding a chief technology officer, a chief data and analytics officer and a chief information security officer. Positions like these do exist in other city governments. But, to be clear, the roadmap is largely provisional. It doesn’t necessarily describe concrete plans, but it offers a glimpse of what the administration has in mind — a more tech-savvy consolidated government.

Finding top talent in an election year could be tough, LCG’s civil service director tells me. Whoever would come into that position would face at least some political insecurity and the possibility that a new boss could kick him or her to the curb, particularly if a new administration doesn’t share Robideaux’s enthusiasm for big data in local government. This is an issue Robideaux faces in filling three other positions in 2019 — directors for LUS, LUS Fiber and planning — all while he runs for re-election.

The complication is, it’s an election year,” Civil Service Director Adam Marcantel tells me. “Finding someone to run LUS for three months could be difficult. He may find that with IS&T, too.”

Robideaux has typically been slow to fill new positions. Current interim IS&T Director Michelle Rue has served in a temporary capacity for 10 months. Marcantel says he approached the administration in early fall last year to urge action. Caught up in the NextGEN/LUS flurry, the administration asked to revisit posting qualifications for a new director after the holidays. The administration posted the job last week.

What to watch for: Whether Robideaux ultimately fills all four open positions this year, and what talent he’s able to court. Wingerter herself was a late-term appointment in Joey Durel’s administration, she tells me, pushing back on the idea that an election year complicates the search. Technically, there’s nothing other than political pressure forcing Robideaux to make moves on these positions now. Director positions are not subject to civil service rules when it comes to vacancy, Marcantel says.

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New federal data peers deeper into Lafayette’s economy, and it’s not good

New county-level economic data from the federal government paints a scary and precise picture of Lafayette’s economic decline.

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New year, new directors to come for Fiber and LUS

The gist: Fiber and LUS have been formally split since the budget was adopted last year, but the search for new directors to run the now independent agencies was punted until the NextGEN affair was resolved.

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Mayor-President Joel Robideaux intends to fill four vacant director positions this year. Fiber and LUS directorships have been vacant since the fall, when the council approved reorganizing Fiber into its own department. It’s an election year, which could complicate the job search, and Robideaux has been slow to fill other director level positions. LCG also currently has interim directors running the IT and planning departments. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter says the search for an new IT director is starting this week.

Some background: LUS Fiber was created as a division of LUS, not a separate department of LCG. The two shared a director — until mid-last year, longtime LUS Director Terry Huval, one of Fiber’s founders — and shared some administrative staff. As Fiber’s operations have gotten off the ground, it’s built out its own support team. After the split, Fiber became its own department, not unlike public works or planning, and is separate from LUS. Since Huval retired last year, it’s been overseen by Interim Fiber Director Teles Fremin. Jeff Stewart serves as interim utilities director.

OK, so what difference does that make? Many have argued that Fiber has long needed its own dedicated director. The thinking is, it’s a $40 million a year operation that needs full-time attention to grow. That was Robideaux’s rationale when he proposed the split last year, and the council has come on board.

Fiber and LUS are financially intertwined, but the split shouldn’t change that. Fiber owes LUS $28 million for loans fronted by LUS in the system’s early days. Fiber has paid virtually only interest on that debt, but is scheduled to make big payments in the next few years, starting with a $1.5 million payment in 2019. Also, Fiber owes $110 million on bonds that are backstopped by LUS. In other words, if Fiber defaults on its bonds, LUS would be on the hook. Robideaux assured the council that LCG is ultimately responsible for Fiber’s debts, and nothing about the split changes the obligations.

Speaking of the council, the new city council will oversee Fiber once the charter amendments take effect in 2020. There was some question at Tuesday’s council meeting whether the split would swap out regulators. LUS is regulated by the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a council subset made up of the five city-majority council members. Establishing a city council negates the need for an extra body. Insofar as the LPUA governed LUS, Fiber was under its purview. But, by state law, Fiber is audited by the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC, for instance, is reviewing the $1.8 million Fiber billed LUS for service to sewer lift stations that were hooked up but never turned on.

What to watch for: Salaries for the new fiber and utilities directors. Last year, council members Bruce Conque, now LPUA chair, and Kenneth Boudreaux argued Robideaux set the salaries too low: $150,000 for the utilities director and $115,000 for the Fiber director. Qualifications and salary for the utilities director will be set in consultation with LUS’s consultant of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions (no relationship to NextGEN). But the Fiber director’s salary is up to the administration, subject to approval of the city-parish council this year and the city council in the future. Wingerter tells me the $100,000 salary is not set in stone and could rise depending on candidate interest.

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