Define the election. Write the talking points.

Community Agenda 2019

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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‘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.

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State Ethics Board investigating Michael Lunsford, Citizens for a New Louisiana

Ethics Board investigations are confidential, but the board’s decision to seek legal remedy from the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge last month revealed the probe into whether Citizens for a New Louisiana, which Ethics refers to as CNLA, violated the state campaign finance disclosure laws.

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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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Robideaux expected to veto Louisiana Avenue budget amendment

The gist: Last week, the City-Parish Council restored $7 million in funding to extend Louisiana Avenue, narrowly passing an amendment to next year’s budget that blocked the mayor-president’s proposal to move that money to undetermined drainage projects. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux is expected to veto the amendment and send the issue back to the council where a supermajority vote would be needed to overrule him.

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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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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. 

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Republic Services yet to pay $75K fine from 2018

The gist: Republic Services, already in the hot seat over complaints of shoddy service, has yet to pay a $75,000 fine levied against the trash collector by Lafayette Consolidated Government more than a year ago.

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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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