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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.

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LETTER: The cost of doing nothing on the Buchanan garage

Our inability to work together has slowed and stymied progress in the city of Lafayette, while spurring much more expensive growth in the outskirts of our parish.

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Splitting the council has raised the stakes on Lafayette’s deteriorating politics

Political discourse in Lafayette has veered so far off the rails that we can’t even agree on the basics. And now we have a whole host of thorny issues that we have to unpack while splitting one council into two.

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LETTER: Spend public dollars on a new parking garage, not new office space

Over a month ago, I went on KPEL to make the case that the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority should use the $30 million they have in combined cash to rebuild the Buchanan Street parking garage — currently set for redevelopment — instead of using public money to build new office space for the […]

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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.

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Polarization is coming home to Lafayette

Our politics has historically been more personal than partisan. This election cycle will put that trend to the test.

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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.

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To dredge or not to dredge: Officials, engineers and advocates debate it while Lafayette residents demand it

The gist: Dredging the Vermilion is becoming a political movement in Lafayette, driven by the trauma of repeat flooding events since the catastrophic no-name floods of August 2016. Studies continue as engineers and public officials debate the efficacy of digging out the bayou. 

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“Unclogging the Vermilion River is the first step to solving this problem,” said Paul Baker, headmaster of Episcopal School of Acadiana in remarks to the City-Parish Council Tuesday night. Baker’s home along the St. John coulee flooded in 2016 and again during the June 2019 “rain bomb.” He exhorted the council to take action, worrying that officials may shrug off solutions given the magnitude of the problem. “My wife and I live in fear of the rain,” he said, “and that’s not a healthy way to live in South Louisiana.” 

Many now credit Dredge the Vermilion activists Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon for driving the conversation. Dixon and Schoefller were behind the push to stop pumps north of Lafayette Parish ahead of Tropical Storm Barry, which in part lowered the base level of the bayou when joined by a favorable and powerful north wind. It’s not clear which intervention — man’s or nature’s — did most of the work lowering the river’s level. Regardless, the episode has given the pair a lot of credibility among residents. 

Meanwhile, studies and stakeholder meetings continue. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the Vermilion River before it will commit to dredging the entire bayou through Vermilion Parish. A hydrology and hydraulic study is expected to be completed by December 2019, according to Greg Ellison, an aide to U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins who presented to the council Tuesday. 

There is dispute about what impact dredging would have. Some engineers push back against the narrative that lowering the Vermilion would have the impact clamored for by repeated flood victims. Not all flooding in the parish is related to river back flow. Youngsville City Engineer Pam Granger pointed out at a GOP town hall Tuesday night that flooding in the bedroom community is not connected to the Vermilion. Other neighborhoods in Lafayette itself, like Quail Hollow, reportedly would not benefit from river dredging. LCG Public Works Director Mark Dubroc, exasperated, openly questioned whether digging out decades of muddy bottom would do any good. 

All of this conversation is devoid of technical support,” Dubroc said, drawing derisive cackles from the audience. He noted the Corps of Engineers last dredged the river in the mid-90s to restore navigability, not address stormwater management. However, residents along the bayou, including Councilwoman Nanette Cook, claim that dredging effort stopped water from reaching their homes. 

Let’s talk detention. Some use of detention/retention — mechanisms of holding stormwater and slowly releasing it into coulees and the river — is expected to be part of whatever strategy is implemented long term. Dubroc said older developments, built before retention was required by local government, are in part responsible for the extra runoff. He said 4,000 to 7,000 acres of retention could be needed to do any good. That’s roughly the size of a square bound by Johnston and Ambassador Caffery, Kaliste Saloom and Pinhook. 

Right now, spot dredging is on the table. Pushback from Vermilion Parish and continued studying will delay full dredging. Vermilion Parish officials, also represented in Congress by Higgins’ office, say the move could worsen flooding in the area and cause saltwater to invade the low-lying parish, imperilling seafood commerce. That leaves dredging “hot spots” to be the remaining option within Lafayette Parish. Again, there’s some question whether that approach would deliver the solution desperately wanted by many who live along the bayou. 

Ellison said the council could spot dredge now. He relayed conversations with the corps in which officials offered to help LCG get a permit to spot dredge the river. Council members committed to finding the money in the upcoming budget process. Ellison guesstimated that spot dredging could cost $5 million and that LCG could draw the money down out of $1.2 billion in HUD dollars Congressman Higgins helped secure. 

Congress has authorized dredging the Vermilion. We reported that last year. That essentially means the money has been allocated but not delivered. 

What to watch for: Whether LCG moves forward with an intermediate dredging plan. It’s election season, and political pressure from flooded-over constituents could prevail on local officials to take the step. To be sure, it’s not a sure thing that even spot dredging would make an impact. That would take study. Many residents are tired of studies.

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Press association attorney: Yes, council members likely violated Open Meetings Law

The AG was never asked to look into the council’s discussions and won’t take legal action, thus the impact of the potential violation remains thoroughly political.

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What does a parish government do, anyway?

With the parish playing second-fiddle for so long, the separation of the councils provides an opportunity for Lafayette to consider the role of parish government moving forward.

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Louisiana Supreme Court ends charter amendment legal challenge

The gist: Just a week after receiving writ applications, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to take up a suit that put the creation of separate city and parish councils in doubt. The decision, communicated Wednesday, effectively shuts down the legal challenge by a council candidate and the secretary of state. 

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“From the very beginning we were confident that this would be the outcome,” Fix the Charter organizer Kevin Blanchard tells me. Blanchard says he was informed of the writ denial by his attorneys, who inquired with the Louisiana Supreme Court. “The idea that a typo would throw out the result of an entire election is a little bit ridiculous. The important thing is that people remember what this election was about back in December. It’s about fair representation, it’s about protecting LUS, and what we really all need to focus on now is the transition work. The work is not over.” 

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, if not corrected, would have left some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge by a local businessman, who is also running for a parish council seat. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court and affirmed by an appeals court.  

The supreme court’s denial ends a months long legal dispute that was prosecuted confidently in the media by Attorney General Jeff Landry. He chastised LCG attorneys and dismissed a memo they produced making a legal case that supported the change ordinance. A contradictory legal opinion issued by his office formed the basis of the suit against Lafayette Consolidated Government. 

“Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but that does not mean that all opinions are entitled to equal weight,” Landry wrote in a March press release. “Unlike the City Attorney’s memo, our Opinion carries Constitutional weight. Historically, the courts have sided with Attorney General’s opinions in disputes (save very rare exceptions).” 

This is lightening fast in legal terms. The legal challenge began with a complaint filed at the beginning of April. Three months to exhaust appeals is crazy quick. The Louisiana Supreme Court has yet to release a written notice but informed the parties by phone in the interest of speed, given qualifying for the October elections is just over a month away. The challenge was heard on an expedited track. The appeals court turned around an opinion just days after oral arguments. Writ applications were filed just last week.

“I am disappointed that the court system has failed to provide the clarity we requested, and hope none of the longterm concerns we expressed ever come to fruition,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we have a final decision, and my office is ready to hold qualifying next month for the appropriate offices.”

Now what? The bottom line is the result of last year’s election stands, barring an unlikely move into federal courts, and Lafayette will now have separate city and parish councils. The legal dispute halted transition work, as Blanchard notes. The currently consolidated council is charged with producing a budget that will be managed by separate councils, with LCG’s budget process beginning this summer. Last month, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who opposed the split and is not seeking re-election, announced movement on creating a  transition team to tackle what is likely to be a politically sticky process. Communications Director Cydra Wingerter hopes to have a finalized list of appointees released shortly.

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