Integrating Lafayette’s segregated history

Lafayette’s telling of its history has largely left out black perspective. Rick Swanson is trying to fix that.

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Robideaux’s second attempt at transferring library funds collides with calls for new northside branch

The gist: On Tuesday, the council will take up the mayor-president’s renewed push to move $18 million out of the library’s fund balance to infrastructure needs. A transfer that large would likely prevent the addition of a new library east of the Evangeline Thruway.

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Get caught up, quickly: Earlier this year, Robideaux introduced a proposal to transfer $18 million of the library’s $26 million unassigned fund balance to roads, bridges and drainage. The council ultimately passed an amended ballot initiative, reducing the total to $10 million — $8 million for drainage and $2 million for parks and recreation. In an April email to council members, Robideaux took aim at furniture purchases for the library’s newest branch opening in Scott this month. Reprising attacks on the library’s financial management, he has asked the council to revise the transfer back to $18 million.

The library board voted to support a northside library Monday. At a special meeting, board members decided to request budget approval from the council to build a new library on the northside. The board will also ask the council to roll forward the two millages — keep the higher millage rate in place after assessed property values increase, essentially — that support the system to offset the revenues lost by a millage renewal that failed last year. In recent weeks, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux has ramped up calls for a library east of the Evangeline Thruway. Boudreaux has lobbied to use $8 million to put a new library in his district, arguing that his community has been left without ready access to library services and is cut off from the Downtown branch by the Evangeline Thruway. In the last week, he’s pounced on library Director Teresa Elberson, saying she’s ignored his requests for more services for several years. The Scott branch, for reference, cost $7.4 million to build.

“If they’re not willing to take the money and immediately dedicate it to a library purpose for an area that needs it and for a people and a community that deserves it, I cannot support them continuing to sit on this money to do pie in the sky projects,” Boudreaux said Sunday on his Community Hour radio show. “Build the damn library.”

As it stands, the library can afford to build a new library. The library currently has $26 million in unassigned fund balance. If the amended resolution stays the same and gets approved by the public, the library will still have $16 million remaining. The library also has about $18 million in bond authority that it could use with the council’s approval.

But it’s unclear if the library will be able to afford to operate the new library. Next year the library’s revenue is projected to be approximately $2 million less than this year’s budgeted expenses, and that’s without the added cost of operating a new library on the Northside. The library’s board developed four scenarios about the future of the library’s
finances, the best of which still projects the library’s fund balance going negative in seven years.

If Robideaux gets his way, there likely won’t be a northside library. If the $18 million he wants is moved, the library won’t have enough cash to pay for the proposed library. The library still has about $18 million in bond capacity left on $40 million authorized in 2002. Selling those bonds would increase the dedicated millage collected to pay back the debt. So even if technically the library has bonds to sell, it’s not clear if there’s enough political will on the council to approve their sale.

So how does this play out from here? Council members could be swayed by Robideaux’s call to change the rededication from $10 million to $18 million. They could also change that dollar amount to something else, or alter where that money will be moved to. Or they could stick with the existing plan and leave the proposition as is.

What to watch for: First, what happens Tuesday night. Second, what happens during the budget process as it relates to council support for funding of a northside library and allowing the library to roll forward its millages. Third, what happens if some version of Robideaux’s proposal makes it to voters this fall. And fourth, what happens during next year’s property assessment; any decline would have a major impact on the library’s revenue and financial health.

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KADN, KLAF part of $165 million sale to L.A. media group

Allen Media Broadcasting, headed by Weather Channel owner Byron Allen, is buying Lafayette television stations KADN and KLAF, along with two stations in Evansville, Ind.

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Merger ends a newspaper war, but the bloodletting may not be over

It would be naïve to expect the blood to stop splattering.

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Here’s what you’re voting on May 4, Lafayette

The gist: There are two tax renewals on the May 4 ballot — one that supports pumping fresh water into the Vermilion River and the other pays one-third of the sheriff’s budget. May the fourth be with you.

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Arkansas restaurant sues Waitr for hiking fees in breach of contract

The gist: Bobby’s Country Cookin’ in Little Rock, Ark., filed suit in April, claiming the food delivery platform boosted its contracted take rate without notice in a bid to puff up revenues ahead of its 2018 IPO. The suit was filed in Lake Charles, Waitr’s home base.

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Advocate snags Times-Picayune, New Orleans newspaper competition is no more

The gist: New Orleans businessman John Georges and his wife Dathel, owners of The Advocate, announced today they have purchased the assets of The Times-Picayune and nola.com from Advance Local Media.

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The ‘what the hell is going on again?’ guide to the charter on trial

A high-altitude explainer on the legal jeopardy facing the charter amendments.

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VISION 2020: Tear down the parish jail and courthouse to make room for Lafayette’s future

To regain the ground our economy’s lost, we need to take bold swings at projects with catalytic potential. That potential exists in a waterfall hidden under the parish jail and courthouse.

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$1 million left to Downtown’s Main Street project

The gist: Instead of draining all $6.8 million from the Main Street revitalization project to pump into other transportation initiatives, $1 million will remain to scope the Downtown priority.

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A Metropolitan Planning Organization subcommittee approved the transfer Wednesday, leaving one more stop at the organization’s executive committee before the transfer is official.

Get caught up, quickly: The funds were originally awarded to the Downtown Development Authority in 2014 by the MPO, a regional agency responsible for funneling federal transportation dollars. Taking advantage of a new MPO policy designed to sweep out unused monies, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux targeted the funds for a transfer request, asking that they go to several new projects, including the University Avenue corridor, a campaign promise. The move rankled Downtown advocates who have fought to keep the money Downtown.

“A million is better than zero,” DDA CEO Anita Begnaud tells me. “We have a plan now.” Begnaud and DDA board members have lobbied the administration for the past six months to hang on to the money. The funds were more or less locked up by a bureaucratic dispute over how to pay for engineering. The $1 million that remains was itself technically “transferred” to a new engineering assessment project for Main Street redevelopment.

The move doesn’t necessarily represent a delay. Scoping was a step already required before any construction could begin. The city will put up a 20% match to draw down $800,000 in federal dollars through the MPO.

Long term, DDA will need a willing partner in LCG to pay for construction costs. It’s still feasible that DDA could go back through the MPO to get construction dollars once the scope is complete. MPO Transportation Director Melanie Bordelon tells me the 2014 project was approved for funding before the MPO became part of the regional Acadiana Planning Commission and changed its rules and priorities. Under the new regime, she says, it’s unlikely this kind of project would have been awarded funds.

LCG asked to move a total of $8 million to new projects, including the $6.8 for Main Street, zeroing out dormant funds for planning in the I-49 Connector corridor and other projects. Here’s a quick list of where the money went:

  • Coolidge Corridor Study – $500,000
  • Adaptive Signal Project – $1.5 million
  • Pinhook/Kaliste Saloom Intersection Study – $400,000
  • N. University Phase 1 – $4.6 million
  • Main Street engineer assessment — $1 million

The list previously included a transit loop connecting Downtown and UL. The project, first conceived by the Robideaux administration in 2017, was pulled from the transfer request.

Why this matters: Like Begnaud said, it’s not nothing. The Main Street corridor is part of a key intersection in Downtown, passing right in front of the old federal courthouse. Robideaux talked broadly about the need to invest in Downtown to drive parish economic growth in remarks this week at the Plan Lafayette launch. Leaving anything for the Main Street project to go forward is a small win for Downtowners, considering how little leverage they had in negotiations.

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Accusing library of overspending, Robideaux asks council to increase fund balance transfer

The gist: In an email to council members last week, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux accused the library of overspending to furnish its new branch in Scott. He cited the expenditures in asking the council to consider increasing a $10 million fund transfer already set to appear on the ballot this fall.

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Get caught up, quickly: Earlier this year Robideaux introduced a proposal to transfer $18 million of the library’s $26 million unassigned fund balance to roads, bridges and drainage. The council ultimately passed an amended ballot initiative, reducing the total to $10 million — $8 million for drainage and $2 million for parks and recreation. The public is slated to vote on the transfer in October.

Robideaux previously accused the library of illegitimately hoarding money. Now, he’s saying it is spending too freely. In January, Robideaux inaccurately claimed that the library snuck a fourth tax — the so-called “ghost millage” — onto the ballot in 2002 that allowed it to secretly collect tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The heart of the attack was that the library’s $26 million fund balance wasn’t the result of sound fiscal management but fraud. Robideaux’s latest broadside adds profligacy to the bill of particulars. “Socking away taxpayer dollars into an unspent savings account for more than 16 years insults many taxpayers,” he says in the email. “And now spending it with zero regard to price is a further insult and jeopardizes the library’s future.”

The beef here is with some furniture the library bought for the new West Regional Library in Scott. Attached to the email is an inventory of whimsical furniture — for instance, a Ford Mustang booth seat — with price tags scrawled in the margins. Here’s the list of examples he shares:

FurniturePrice
Mustang Booth Seat$10,587.50
Booth Table$4,466.67
Airplane Lounge Chair$5,243.89
2x Lounge Chairs$2,401 each
Bench$1,356.98
Display$2,653.33
Toolbox Storage Unit$8,575
Icemaker$3,884

“Some of those numbers just jumped off the page so astronomically,” says Cydra Wingerter, LCG’s communications director. “In the mayor’s office, if we were spending that level of dollars, some very serious criticism would fall on us.”

These purchases were made through LCG’s purchasing department. The inventory attached was compiled by Purchasing and Property Management, an agency house within LCG’s Office of Finance and Management. Robideaux did not reach out to the library staff or board members to question them directly about their purchases before bringing his concerns up to the council. “We followed his rules,” says library board Vice Chair Andrew Duhon. “I’m not sure why he would take issue with it.”

Robideaux says he’s acting in the library’s best interest. He argues that leaving the library with a large fund balance “could be viewed as excessive by voters,” thereby putting the library’s next millage renewal at risk. He claims he’s shining a light on all this “solely to position [the library] for successful millage renewals.”

Library officials defend the purchases, saying you get what you pay for. Library Director Teresa Elberson argues the pricing is consistent with the costs for commercial furniture, which she says tends to be more expensive because of its durability. She also points out that many of the pieces Robideaux highlights are signature pieces for the transportation theme at the West Regional library, which is located just off I-10. The facility also has a charging station for electric vehicles, the first in the parish.

“He must be clueless as to how much things cost,” says Elberson. “He doesn’t understand the price of furniture in a commercial building that’s being used by the public. You just have to reach out to a hospital, a school, a public building, they’re in the same bind we are. They pay a premium price for this type of furniture.”

Wingerter says Robideaux has not sought price comparisons for the items he flagged.

Library officials say the imaginative pieces make for a more engaging environment and rebut Robideaux’s contention that cost played no factor in the furniture choices. Elberson says the purchases were within the building’s $625,000 budget for equipment, fixtures and furniture. “This is the cost of having a great library,” says Elberson. “When you’ve got a $5 million facility you’re going to put cheap crap in it?”

The new West Regional Library in Scott opens May 14, with a ribbon cutting on May 13. The library’s next millage renewal looms in 2021. If this one fails, the library’s budget will be cut to less than half what it is this year, forcing cutbacks to services, staffing and hours.

What to watch for: Whether Robideaux’s move has any legs. Even if he or a council member puts the ordinance up to make a change, it’s unclear that the votes would be there to pass it. Robideaux would have to flip three council members on an issue that seemed more or less resolved. This will all have to happen in the next few weeks if this money transfer is to stay on the October ballot.

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The charter trial will go on

The gist: On Monday, a district judge declined to throw out a suit filed to overturn a council ordinance passed to fix the charter amendment errors that have jeopardized last year’s historic vote to create separate city and parish councils. The matter will be heard at trial on May 8.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The discrepancies, discovered in December, have reignited political division over the council split, the most significant change to local government since Lafayette consolidated in the 1990s. A group opposed to the charter amendments filed suit after the City-Parish Council voted to correct the errors by ordinance. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general, has joined the suit, which was filed by Lafayette businessman Keith Kishbaugh; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another vote — can correct the errors.

City-parish attorneys argued the suit is an election challenge “in disguise.” Because striking the corrective ordinance would leave a new election the only remaining remedy, the attorneys claim, the aim of the suit is clearly to overturn the Dec. 8 election result — that is, it is effectively an election challenge. State law allows only 30 days to challenge an election, and that window has long expired. District Judge John Trahan disagreed, dismissing the motion and moving to proceed with a bench trial as scheduled. In interviews, both Attorney General Jeff Landry and Kishbaugh attorney Lane Roy have said they believe the charter amendment election needs to be re-voted.

Kishbaugh et al. view this as a constitutional issue, namely that the council violated the Home Rule Charter and the state constitution in passing a reapportionment ordinance to fix legal description errors. The effect, the plaintiffs contend, is to trample over powers the charter vested in the public — namely amending the charter itself — regardless of what state attorneys concede are good intentions.

The heart of the issue: What is reapportionment? The council decided to fix the charter errors by “reapportionment” — redrawing district lines — a power the charter affords it explicitly. Adjusting voting boundaries by ordinance is a common approach statewide, and LCG has followed that practice since consolidation took effect in 1996. What’s unusual here is that the “reapportionment” in question did not respond to changes in population or a census, the more common causes for redrawing lines. That’s the gray area the court will likely have to sift through — whether the ordinance is an appropriate and legal form of reapportionment.

“The odd thing about it is the public didn’t vote on the precincts the first time [in December],” quipped Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert. A key part of the pro-charter-amendment argument is the errors do not undermine what voters intended — to create a new form of government.

The legal headaches were avoidable. Not just the typos. The root of the dispute is the inclusion of the precincts in the amended charter itself. The original home rule charter enshrines the legal descriptions, so city-parish attorneys followed that custom, including the new precinct legal descriptions in the amended charter too. That was not required by law, and set the stage for the unfolding turmoil that may yet vacate the result of last year’s decision to split the council. “They created the box they’re trapped in,” Assistant Attorney General Emily Andrews argued in court.

What to watch for: May 8. Judge Trahan’s view on some very wonky matters of law could alter the structure of local government going forward. Meanwhile, candidates continue to announce bids for separate councils. Councilman Nanette Cook, a consolidated incumbent, is set to kick off a bid for city council this week. Others have already jumped in the races for separate city and parish councils. There’s a scenario in which the current council roster remains in place beyond 2019, should the court side with Kishbaugh and the state.

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