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Savings unknown in decision to shutter park centers on Lafayette’s Northside; so are the costs

Hopping the fence to sneak into the old Heymann Park pool as a kid, Parish Councilman AB Rubin got caught by park police. Decades later he still has a scar under his beard from nicking his cheek, and a parking lot has paved over the pool that was once a fixture of social life in Lafayette’s McComb-Veazey neighborhood. Smiling, Rubin […]

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Council Preview: Budget cuts, tax breaks, Mouton statue — and the possible return of scooters

The gist: The fallout of LCG’s failing financials continues, with pay raises on the chopping block. At the same time, the Bottle Arts Lofts project is looking for more taxpayer support. The City Council will take up backing Mayor-President Guillory’s push to move the Mouton statue. And scooters may be returning to Lafayette’s streets. Access the agendas here.

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The city council will discuss throwing their support behind the push to move the Mouton statue. At the beginning of July, Mayor-President Josh Guillory announced his intent to move the General Mouton statue away from its perch at a prominent Downtown intersection. Tomorrow, the Lafayette City Council will vote on a resolution formalizing its support for this effort. While the resolution won’t carry the weight of law, it will be a significant symbolic next step in this decades-long process to relocate what many see as a monument glorifying slavery.

More city sales tax money may be used to prop up the city’s general fund. The city of Lafayette collects two 1-cent sales taxes. Currently, up to 35% of that money can be used for operating expenses in the city’s general fund. The rest is used to fund the city’s capital investments in things like roads and buildings. City Councilman Pat Lewis has submitted a resolution that would call a public vote before year’s end to raise the amount of those funds that can go into the city’s general fund to 45%. This would increase city general fund revenue by approximately $8 million. Doing this would reduce the city’s funds dedicated to capital but would go a long way to closing what is now the city’s $11 million operating deficit next year.

The Bottle Arts Lofts is asking for more taxpayer support. This redevelopment of the old Coke bottling plant at Four Corners into artists lofts has already received a $1.5 million no-interest loan from the city. Now the developers of this project are requesting historic restoration tax abatements from both the city and parish councils. Basically, they don’t want to pay property taxes for five years. In total this will cost both the city and the parish about $720,000 in new property tax revenue, or more than $1.4 million over the next five years. Critics of this project question the economics of this project, which is more than 80% funded by taxpayer dollars and is budgeted to cost three to four times the market value of surrounding properties on a per-square-foot basis.

Suspension of pay increases up for final adoption. One of the victims of LCG’s financial challenges could be the 2% pay raises LCG employees, as well as fire and police, are supposed to receive. With the city in particular facing a $28 million operating deficit, decisions like this may be inevitable, but they’re still going to be frustrating to the people who work at LCG and are counting on these raises.

State roads may start looking nicer. A plan to have LCG take over responsibility for mowing and picking up litter on state roads may take another step forward. The challenge has been that the state doesn’t have the manpower to handle this responsibility. The plan is for the state to instead pay LCG to get this work done. Hopefully it’ll mean major state roads like Johnston, Pinhook, the Evangeline Thruway and University will start looking a lot nicer if this deal comes together.

Scooters may be coming back! An introductory ordinance of the joint council would start the process of putting in place rules that are required to allow shared scooter services like Bird and Lime back on Lafayette’s streets. It’s not clear yet if these rules will pass or, if they do, whether those scooters will instantly reappear. But it’s likely to lead to another lively debate as there are people who passionately support and oppose them.

Look out for an update on the Buchanan Garage. At the Parish Council meeting, there’ll be a report on the state of the Buchanan Garage. The last news about that property involved taking down all the concrete panels to assess the extent to the damage and determine whether the building could be salvaged. Look for more insight into what the next steps might be, whether it’s fixing the structure and reopening it or tearing it down.

A new early voting branch may be opening at the East Regional Library, but not everyone’s happy about it. The site would be funded initially by the cities of Broussard and Youngsville. But the League of Women Voters has voiced concern about investing in another site while voter accessibility continues to be a problem at the primary early voting site in Downtown Lafayette. Making this all the more difficult is the parish’s financial struggles, which limit its options for making any improvements on its own. 

Broussard may be taking over Arceneaux Park. Following the lead of Youngsville, which took over maintenance of Foster Park earlier this summer, Broussard is proposing to take responsibility for maintaining Arceneaux Park. The parish has multiple parks in other municipalities, but has had limited funds to maintain these parks. These transfers allow these cities to ensure these parks are assets rather than eyesores.

Renters are projected to need a lot more help than Louisiana is giving them

The gist: Offered as relief, the governor’s emergency rent assistance program has met little celebration from housing advocates, who are wary that the $24 million set aside is a pittance compared with the volume of estimated need. Housing advocates say avoiding a wave of housing instability in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, will cost at least 10 times what the state has cobbled together. 

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Up front, the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance program will launch with $7 million and grow to collect $24 million in federal housing funds. The program will be centralized and managed by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. An income cap of $25,450 limits the program to the very poor. Louisiana’s median income is around $48,000.

A report circulated by housing advocates estimates Louisiana renters need $250 million through the end of the year. Metro Lafayette alone, according to that same calculation, would need more than twice what’s been offered by the program, and little money has been offered up locally. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to authorize $200,000 in local rent and utility relief. 

“It’s like trying to soak up an oil spill with a paper towel,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, of the resources thrown at housing so far. Her comments echo official statements from statewide organizations like HousingLouisiana, which issued a press release applauding the thought behind the program but questioning the effort. A $15 million program in Houston ran out of money in two hours. 

Critics further point out the billions in federal assistance handed out to small businesses in Louisiana alone. Around $8 billion flowed into Louisiana’s small businesses via the CARES Act, the multi-trillion dollar stimulus stood up in a scramble by Congress to prop up the American economy as joblessness soared. Businesses in Lafayette Parish collected $600 million in forgivable federal loans valued at $150,000 or more through that program. The Louisiana Legislature authorized another $300 million for its own Main Street Recovery Act. And Lafayette Consolidated Government opened a $1 million small business grant program with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Housing advocates continue to warn of a coming wave of evictions. Legal proceedings on evictions in Louisiana resumed in June, the first shoe to drop. But the looming July 25 end of a federal moratorium on evictions has advocates in suspense. Expanded unemployment benefits will end July 31, days after the eviction protections are lifted for many of Louisiana’s 600,000 renter households. And, to be sure, many mortgage holders could be in trouble too as incomes decline and mortgage relief dries up. 

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we knew that if we could find a solution” it would take a while to make it work, Rachal says. Rent programs based on federal dollars are notoriously slow, suggesting that even as applicants flock to the rent program’s website or blow up 211 for help, the money won’t come quickly for them, both gumming up the flow of relief and — in the worst cases — arriving too little, too late. 

Evictions have been abnormally low in Lafayette. The City Court docket has held steady at 30 filings per week since the eviction stay was lifted in June. Pre-Covid levels averaged around 60 evictions per week, according to City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom. “I hold out the hope that those numbers don’t escalate,” Saloom says. 

It feels like a calm before the storm. The dire predictions from housing advocates are premised on sustained, high levels of unemployment. While ticking down, unemployment figures have remained stubbornly high, suggesting the astronomical costs of need worrying housing advocates aren’t so far fetched. Even at half the value projected, the scale would be historic. Louisiana has 312,000 continued unemployment claims, posting a small decline last week. The Acadiana region bucked the trend, bumping slightly up to just more than 36,000 claims. 

The early signs are there. More than 320 households, including many with children, are in hotel rooms secured as emergency housing by ARCH, Rachal says, and the number is rising. Beyond people showing up for help, advocates can’t see beyond the horizon to what’s coming. It’s unclear exactly how many people live in housing currently protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which covers any domicile that receives federal dollars — by voucher, mortgage backing or tax credit. Whatever that figure, it’s likely to dwarf the number that were covered by the state’s moratorium only. 

“I have a lot of concern that people might think that’s solved now,” Rachal says of the message the rental program sends. “And it’s not.”

100% virtual learning one option in LPSS initial back-to-school plan

In a letter laying out the various phases of what she calls the “20-21 Learn Lafayette” plan, Superintendent Irma Trosclair says collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Education and the Louisiana Department of Health will be ongoing throughout the school year. Coronavirus, she acknowledges, could push the district into an all-virtual scenario.

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Councilman Lazard: Local mask ordinance in the works for city of Lafayette

Click here to read council members Glenn Lazard and Nanette Cook’s press release about backing away from their effort to pass a local mask ordinance.

The gist: Lafayette City Councilman Glenn Lazard is moving forward on a local mask mandate he hopes will tighten and potentially expand upon the state order that went into effect Monday. 

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A viral, bogus ‘HIPAA’ loophole underscores weaknesses in Louisiana’s mask mandate

Cracks in the governor’s mandate are an easy opening for objecting owners to squeeze through and take a stand on principle, which many have.

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Old guard holds on to RPEC

The gist: A loosely organized effort to shake up leadership in the local Republican Party failed Saturday, with one notable exception: Lafayette Parish School Board member Tommy Angelle defeated Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee member and staunch right-wing activist Denice Skinner in District 1.

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Readers asked about masks, reinfection, Florida and quarantining; Here’s what how the experts responded

There isn’t evidence that masks are unsafe. Lafayette is about as unsafe as Florida. Did they mention you should wear a mask?

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Column: Lafayette’s economy needs a mask mandate now

Lafayette’s economy can’t get healthy if its people aren’t healthy. The only way to slow the spread of this coronavirus is to get 80-90% of people to wear masks or to shut the everything back down again. Faced with those options, Lafayette needs to do everything in its power to get people to wear masks, not just to save lives but to save our economy.

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Nationwide chief search attracts four local applicants

The gist: Four local men are vying to replace Toby Aguillard as chief of police in Lafayette, after a nationwide search yielded no outside interest

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No one in the department with a ranking above sergeant applied. Meeting the July 1 deadline for applications were Lafayette Police Sgt. Wayne Griffin, the department’s current PIO; retired Lafayette Police Lt. Guy LeBreton; retired Louisiana State Police Lt. Eric Burson; and Lafayette Police Sgt. Paul Trouard. The candidates will now have to sit for the civil service exam.

Only one Black candidate, Griffin, applied for the job, at a time of heightened national tension over systemic racism and its role in policing. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has moved to eliminate the position of retired officer Reggie Thomas, who as deputy chief was the highest ranking Black police officer ever to serve in the department.

Thomas was passed over as interim chief after Aguillard’s departure. Guillory instead chose Lt. Scott Morgan, who has 24 years with the city. Thomas initially told The Current he would seek the chief’s position, but later retired and decided to run for city marshal.

The applications were approved by the Lafayette Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service board today; the board has called on the state to set a testing date, likely next month, according to attorney Candice Hattan, who represents the board.

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Committee will evaluate candidates, make recommendations. LCG Chief Communications Officer Jamie Angelle confirms that a diverse, six-person selection committee with a wide range of professional experience will evaluate the applicants and make a recommendation to Mayor-President Josh Guillory. Serving on the committee are retiring 15th Judicial District Judge Jules Edwards, who is seeking a seat as city court judge; Sheriff Mark Garber, who was on the selection committee for the Robideaux administration; City Councilwoman Liz Hebert; attorney Pat Magee, director of the state attorney general’s criminal division; insurance executive Mark Romero, a member of the UL System’s board of supervisors who chaired Guillory’s police transition committee; and Parish Councilman AB Rubin. Angelle says Romero will chair the committee. Garber, Hebert and Romero are White, and Edwards, Magee and Rubin are Black.

When Aguillard sought the job in 2016, there were 14 applicants. Aguillard was pushed out soon after Guillory took office, but briefly resisted his ouster. In an interview with The Daily Advertiser (read more about the current applicants’ backgrounds and qualifications here), Guillory appeared to hint that the current field may not yield a recommendation. “[I] told one of the committee members today that this isn’t a check-off-the-box thing. … so if they go through this committee and there are no recommendations, we’ll open it back up,” Guillory told the paper. “I’m not going to rush through on the first batch. I’m hopeful, for our people, for our administration, for our police department, that the magic person is right there in round one, and they may be,” Guillory added. “The committee may not recommend any of them, and I’ve got to respect that.”

While he pledged to hold a nationwide search after pushing Aguillard out, Guillory did say he hoped to promote from within

Given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic — not to mention mounting pressure on departments nationwide — Guillory told The Daily Advertiser he was unsure about the success of the national search.

“If they’re all internal then I don’t know how successful we were on the national search,” he said. “But I can tell you Jamie put the ads out there nationally. But they’re busy too, and that’s something we’ve got to consider. You’ve got all these other municipalities going through the same thing we’re going through, some worse than us.”

Angelle confirms the position was advertised in Police Career Finder, Police Magazine, Law Enforcement News-PoliceOne, DiscoverPolicing.org, The Acadiana Advocate, The Baton Rouge Advocate and The New Orleans Advocate.

“I am unaware of any others at this time,” Angelle says. “There may be other police-related boards or blogs that people could have shared it on, but I haven’t heard of anything being posted elsewhere.”

COLUMN: Don’t let political theater distract you from LUS’s bigger problems

In the next couple of years, LUS has to make a series of huge decisions. But the issues that matter are getting drowned out by the political theater that’s been drummed up around potentially illegal payments from LUS to LUS Fiber. Lafayette can’t afford to get distracted.

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A seat at the (Lafayette comedy) table

Local comedians and performers want to build a more inclusive scene in world dominated by “white dudes with beards.”

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