Lafayette’s conservative m-p on a range of topics, controversies and issues on the horizon.
Efforts to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by consolidating IT departments could create risks that cost Lafayette millions of dollars. We need experienced leadership in place first before considering this proposal.
The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory says he will start a nationwide search for a new police chief in the next 30 days and confirmed for the first time plans to eliminate Deputy Chief Reggie Thomas’s position.
The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory intends to stick with interim directors at LUS and LUS Fiber for several more months while moving to combine their IT personnel with LCG’s IT department. Both interim appointments, made by the last administration, were said to be “short-term” and of questionable qualifications. The reorganization has met some resistance.
The main pitch is cost savings. Pooling personnel could save $500,000 a year on IT services, according to Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter. This would primarily be achieved by using the consolidation to staff currently vacant positions, in a combined innovation group overseen by LCG Chief Information Officer Randy Gray. All 31 employees in the LUS network engineering division would come under Gray’s supervision.
“The next director is going to be in a better position,” Wingerter says. “It’s going to produce incredible savings across the board.”
Interim directors for LUS and LUS Fiber will remain in place for “several months,” Wingerter confirms. Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles were installed over LUS and Fiber, respectively, by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to oversee an inquiry he launched into questionable payments made over the years by LUS and consolidated government to Fiber. Those payments allegedly amounted to millions in illegal subsidies to the municipal telecom. Both Duhon and Miles have remained in their positions despite the apparent wrap up of that investigation late last year. The findings were reported to the Public Service Commission, which has some oversight over Fiber, at the end of 2019.
The administration has been courting council members this week. Both parish and city council members would need to vote on a joint ordinance to approve the reorganization, just as they did with the administration’s successful bid to split up the Public Works Department. Administration officials met with City Councilwoman Liz Hebert and Parish Councilman Bryan Tabor Wednesday, rolling out a slide deck presentation to talk them through the plan.
“I feel like it’s moving too fast,” Hebert says. “If it’s a great idea now, it’ll be a great idea when the [LUS] investigation is over.” Hebert says she wants to wait for permanent directors to be appointed and for an independent, forensic audit of LUS and Fiber’s finances to be completed.
There is some concern about how the combined IT group would be budgeted and how it would affect the day-to-day work of LUS network engineers. It’s unclear how costs would be allocated between city and parish dollars and those of LUS ratepayers. LUS is self-funded by its utility sales, and annually contributes millions to the city general fund each year. Conceivably, the CIO would have control over the LUS network budget, which would in turn impact utility operations. The IT groups for LUS and LCG have roughly similar personnel costs, around $2.5 million.
Saving money may not be the right objective. Independent IT Consultant Doug Menefee believes LCG’s IT department is underfunded and understaffed. He argues that a reorganization could make sense, if the net effect is to improve the resources available for cybersecurity in particular. Cyberattacks hampered services in the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles last year. He warns that saving money should not be the prime objective.
“Consolidation shouldn’t come from cost savings but from efficient use of talent,” Menefee says, noting IT talent can be tough to find. There’s usefulness, he argues, in having a “single throat to choke” and in pooling skills. LUS may have resources that LCG’s IT group could benefit from.
LUS advocates say this is a bad idea altogether. Former LUS top manager Andrew Duhon circulated an email to council members arguing that the plan puts LUS operations at risk. Duhon supervised the divisions targeted by the reorg. LUS network engineers are integrated into the utility’s everyday work, he says, including its power grid, cybersecurity systems, customer service applications and more.
A “whistleblower” letter called the reorganization a “power grab” to prop up the city’s 311 initiative. The anonymous letter, sent around to media outlets on Jan. 21, prompted Guillory to dismiss the concerns, saying the plan was at the “beginning of the beginning.” Claiming to be an LUS employee, the tipster said there is no reason to “move control” for the sake of collaboration.
LUS staff have reportedly been kept out of the loop. In his letter, the former CFO claims LUS staff members have been blocked out of the proposal’s development, which Wingerter denies. Asked to name specific LUS employees, she declined, citing only the interim director.
“Since LUS and LUS Fiber lack permanent directors, there is no real advocate for LUS,” Andrew Duhon writes in his letter to council members.
Lowell Duhon took a considerable pay bump when Robideaux made him interim LUS director. He served as Robideaux’s CAO for all but the last few months of Robideaux’s term, until he was moved to LUS to oversee the investigation, boosting his annual pay from $125,000 to $250,000. That substantial raise garnered suspicion that Robideaux’s motives for the appointments were a kind of patronage. Robideaux tied the leadership shuffle to a request by the PSC, which the PSC subsequently denied.
Consultants have questioned both Duhon’s and Miles’ qualifications. NewGen Strategies and Solutions, the consulting engineer required by LUS’ bond contracts, found both Duhon and Miles “lacking” in the appropriate experience to manage the day-to-day affairs of LUS and Fiber. The firm voiced those concerns in a letter sent to Robideaux in November. Robideaux mollified the consultant’s concern by insisting the appointments would be “short-term” until qualified directors could be appointed by a new administration in early 2020.
Wingerter says the inquiry is still going. And she notes that the administration and consulting engineer have a “difference of opinion” about Lowell Duhon’s and Miles’ qualifications. She said new questionable charges have surfaced but declined to go into details. Lowell Duhon’s role, however, is not limited to the apparently ongoing investigation, she says, adding that the former CAO oversees customer service, finance and other LUS activities.
“He was the boss of the previous directors,” Wingerter says, defending Lowell Duhon’s fitness to run LUS.
LUS and Fiber both face a great deal of uncertainty in 2020. LUS is in the middle of a power planning process, set to wrap up this year, that could lead to a decision to retire and replace the coal-fired power plant that accounts for half the system’s electricity generating capacity. Fiber’s fate is largely in the hands of the PSC, which is purportedly reviewing the results of Robideaux’s 2019 investigation.
▸ The gist: The city and parish councils have another slow night scheduled for their meetings on Feb. 4 with a smattering of housekeeping. The only big items on the agenda are two resolutions to approve restoration tax abatements for redevelopment projects.
▸ Tax breaks. There are two resolutions on the agenda to approve requests for restoration tax abatement. This state program allows owners to invest in restoring their properties without having to increase their property taxes for a period of time because of the increased value of their restored property.
- University Place Apartments. These apartments were purchased for $12.5 million by Alpha Capital Partners of Pennsylvania through its Opportunity Zone Fund last year. The plan is to invest $7.5 million in renovating the interior and exterior of this building. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego generating an additional $564,995 in property taxes.
- Park Place Surgery Center. This property was purchased for $4.1 million by local investment group Imperial Property Holdings last year. The plan is to invest $5 million in renovating and expanding the building for a new surgery center. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego paying an additional $675,995 in property taxes.
If both are approved, over the next five years LCG will be giving up more than $1.2 million in additional property taxes. Both projects were announced last year as moving forward with no mention of the need for potential restoration tax abatements to be financially viable.
▸ A new Professional Services Review committee. This five-member committee reviews and recommends approval of contracts with LCG. The amended chartered required a reconfiguration of the committee. Each council will nominate one member, both to serve through the end of 2023. The mayor-president has one appointment, and the other two seats are taken by the public works director and the utilities director.
▸ An intergovernmental agreement to give city fire department equipment to parish fire protection. This agreement allows the parish to use 10 outdated radios that the city fire department isn’t using anymore. But determining how the parish is allowed to continue using city equipment given the split councils is an issue that will need to be addressed moving forward.
▸ Donating adjudicated properties to Holy Family School. The two properties in question are at 139 S. Bienville St. and 213 S. Bienville St.
The gist: There’s been a lot of talk about brain drain lately, the exodus of educated talent. It’s become a meme-level concern among young professionals. But oddly, the data doesn’t necessarily back up the anxiety.
Metro Lafayette actually leads the state in brain gain. That’s a term I just made up. While Louisiana overall has shed its college educated workforce out of state, Lafayette has added 3,600 new residents in that cohort between 2005 and 2017, according to UL economist Gary Wagner. Lafayette appears to be sucking up that talent from other Louisiana metros.
Pause the celebration. Lafayette is doing better than a state that lags behind the rest of the country. And jobs are coming back slowly, relative to the losses. It’s possible, Wagner told a Downtown luncheon Wednesday, that Lafayette won’t ever recover the job losses.
Healthcare is poised to be Lafayette’s main economic driver. Oil and gas, the regional fuel for decades, has slipped to fourth among sectors in terms of wage share. But Lafayette’s healthcare industry has trended up and is just about to take its perch as the top sector. “Eds and meds” are often cited as the desirable white collar jobs to attract in economic development. To the extent that’s true, Wagner says, Lafayette is relatively well positioned to pounce.
Some obstacles are out of our control. Wagner argued that “bad state policies” in taxation and regulation are holding the state back. He characterized the raft of policies broadly, noting that the policies are longstanding thorns.
The loudest voices A fight for control of the Lafayette Republican Party
Just a week into his first term, Mayor-President Josh Guillory pushed out his chief administrative officer, Beth Guidry. A lack of experience was the official explanation, but according to Guidry, the mayor thought she had the wrong friends.
Over the last ten years, spending on virtually every government function has risen — except Public Works.
The gist: UL Economist Gary Wagner predicts around 1% job growth for Acadiana this year, a rate that would beat statewide projections but still lag behind the nation. Speaking at The Acadiana Advocate’s Economic Summit Wednesday, Wagner was joined by a panel of business leaders optimistic about the region’s economy going forward.
Over the last year, Lafayette’s MSA has seen some of the best job growth since 2013, according to Wagner. “This recent growth is consistent with the long-run average growth in the region,” he said.
Oil and gas jobs are still down 40% since 2014. And Wagner said growth in oil and gas jobs is flat.
But healthcare has been picking up some of the slack. Wagner believes the industry will soon be the largest sector of the local economy. Oil and gas, once the largest industry in the area, is now fourth.
The biggest risk to his projections is a national recession. The U.S. economy is experiencing a record 126 consecutive months of growth, which is why there’s been a lot of talk about an inevitable recession, potentially soon. If a national recession does happen in 2020, Wagner said it would lower his projections for local job growth.
“We need to create more jobs with higher pay at a faster pace,” Wagner continued, chiming in on a discussion of his research into the causes of severe outmigration patterns in Louisiana. More than 90,000 residents have left the state over the last few years.
Business leaders are generally optimistic. “With the fall of oil and gas, we should be going down,” said John Bordelon, CEO of Home Bank. “But we’re not because of the resiliency of our people.”
Hotel/motel occupancy has been rebounding. While not fully recovered from 2014 highs, occupancy has been up in eight out of the last 11 months, according to Ben Berthelot, president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. He credited some of that growth to public investment in sports complexes in Broussard and Youngsville, which have attracted sporting events, and LCVC’s recruitment of events to this area.
There’s still hope for growth driven by Opportunity Zones. Opportunity Zones are low-income areas where special tax breaks have been designed to encourage investment in development and companies. One Acadiana President and CEO Troy Wayman cited Lafayette General Health’s fund for Oil Center investment as one example. And commercial Realtor Flo Meadows shared her belief that 2020 will be the year to watch for Opportunity Zone investments, citing $500 billion in available capital in the program nationwide.
Oil execs blamed lawsuits and warned that a slow down in Texas could hurt local companies. Art Price, CFO of Badger Oil, linked an “all-time high” in the number of suits, which seek restitution for environmental damage from decades of drilling, to depressed drilling activity in the state. While the number of oil rigs has doubled nationally since 2015, Louisiana’s share has tanked and failed to recover. Most Louisiana activity is concentrated in the Haynesville Shale and deep waters. Price also warned that a recent bonanza in Texas’ Permian Basin could cool off, potentially hurting the many Lafayette companies that have deployed personnel and equipment there. The bottom line: Price projects 2020 to be more of the same stagnation as was seen in 2019 in Lafayette’s oil and gas sector.
The interim Lafayette school superintendent wants to make her job permanent.
The gist: From the jump, the new mayor-president is moving on his campaign promises. He’s got big plans to streamline consolidated government in the face of mounting financial pressure on both the city and parish budgets. Now sworn in, along with two brand new councils, Josh Guillory promises he can do more with less.
“We face a host of challenging conversations, and we are ready,” Guillory said Monday in his inauguration remarks. He framed 2020 as a pivotal year for Lafayette Parish, saying its “future as a family-friendly, business-friendly place hangs in the balance.”
It all starts with restructuring the Public Works Department. He proposed splitting transportation and drainage off from the agency into two separate departments, each with appointed directors of their own. Guillory argues that siloing the divisions will force focus on common sore spots for the public: traffic and stormwater management. Exactly how the reorganization will work in practice remains unclear, particularly when it comes to areas where the departments would overlap. Still, the proposal moved ahead and will be up for final adoption later this month.
“I haven’t had time to study the details on how this might play out,” interim Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux, appointed this week, said in responding to questions from newly seated council members. The plan eliminates four currently vacant positions — two mechanic and two environmental inspectors — and would zero out the associate director position currently held by Terry Cordick, who will retire later this year. Guillory said the savings realized from removing those positions from the budget would free up, at minimum, $67,000 for other purposes despite the added expense of new directors. Here are the proposed new salaries:
- Transportation Director: $120,000
- Drainage Director: $108,000
- Public Works Director: $125,000
It does appear that Public Works could benefit from reorganization. Whether this particular proposal addresses the right problems within public works – including millions in infrastructure maintenance backlogs for drainage, roads and public buildings — is a separate question. One criticism of the proposal is that the most pressing issue facing the department is a lack of resources and manpower to address regular maintenance. Another is that the department is already top heavy and suffers from poor cooperation among its divisions.
“If the system was what it should be, there wouldn’t be much of an outcry,” Pam Granger, Youngsville’s city engineer, tells The Current. She sits on a transition committee convened to review Public Works and recommend changes. That committee did not produce or review the proposal introduced Tuesday night. Councilwoman Liz Hebert tells The Current she supports the administration’s proposal, but adds that she believes constituents would like to see more “boots on the ground” to shave delays on service requests; Guillory insists that the restructuring will not worsen service.
Work has also begun on reviewing the Unified Development Code. On Monday, Guillory doubled down on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” the UDC — which centralizes a number of zoning and building regulations into one place — with something more business friendly, promising to loosen regulations and tinker with processes critics say have slowed down permitting and increased costs for development. A 40-person committee, which includes many vocal critics of the UDC alongside campaign supporters of former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, Guillory’s opponent during the election, met in late December to start work. Alm-LaBar played a key role in developing the UDC while serving under the administration of Joey Durel. How much of the existing regulations remain will determine whether the UDC is truly replaced or merely tweaked.
Guillory has also promised to pursue an independent audit of LUS. Linking the effort to the internal investigation carried out by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in the latter half of 2019, Guillory committed to further vetting LUS’s financial practices. Robideaux’s inquiry surfaced accusations that LUS made millions in improper payments to LUS Fiber in an attempt to prop up the municipal telecom. Just before leaving office, Robideaux suggested Fiber’s business model isn’t working. The results of the inquiry are now in the hands of the Public Service Commission, which has limited regulatory oversight over Fiber.
Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles will remain interim directors of LUS and LUS Fiber. Robideaux appointed Duhon, then his chief administrative officer, and Miles to those positions to carry out the inquiry, at one time inaccurately claiming the leadership shakeup was linked to requests by the PSC. Questions have been raised about Duhon’s and Miles’s qualifications, along with the pay increases that accompanied the appointments. Robideaux’s rebutted concerns of LUS’s consulting engineer, retained as a bond-holder requirement, about the appointments by arguing that they were temporary and meant only for the purposes of the review. The review wrapped with the release of his report in December.
What to watch for: How the new administration works with the new councils. Robideaux was widely criticized for poor communication of his initiatives, which ultimately soured his relationship with the council and other parish elected officials.
The gist: Lafayette Police Chief Toby Aguillard formally resigned earlier this week, ending what appeared to be a brewing standoff between the short-tenured chief and his would-be boss, Mayor-President Josh Guillory. The new administration is planning further restructuring of the police department, which could result in the ouster of Deputy Chief Reggie Thomas, according to several sources familiar with the administration’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity.