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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.

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.

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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Lafayette metro area shrinking for second straight year, according to latest census estimates

The gist: The five-parish metro area is estimated to have plateaued or shrunk in the last two years, despite modest growth in Lafayette Parish, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Since peaking at 490,941 residents in 2016, the metropolitan statistical area essentially flatlined. Annual estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2018 show a slight decrease in population to 489,364. Lafayette’s MSA includes Lafayette, Vermilion, Iberia, St. Mary and Acadia parishes. Businesses considering moving to Lafayette typically look at the regional workforce.

Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish added residents, growing 3% since 2014 to 242,782.  

The city of Lafayette shrank in 2017 estimates. Data that year showed continued growth in surrounding municipalities like Broussard and Youngsville, albeit slowing, and a slight dip in the city of Lafayette’s population, which shrank less than half a percentage point from the previous year. City-level data for 2018 has not been released.

Parish growth may be related to cannibalizing other areas in the region. When you factor in these other numbers, the data suggest that Lafayette Parish’s growth could be coming at the expense of surrounding areas. In other words, while areas like Youngsville and Broussard may be growing, a large part of that growth could be residents leaving areas harder struck by the recent economic downturn, which doesn’t necessarily help the overall health of the region.

A caveat. These are estimates, and they are sometimes revised. It’s not uncommon for the census bureau to change population figures in subsequent years. The next formal census is in 2020. There’s currently a national political battle over whether a citizenship question will appear on the form.

Why this matters. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, one of the best ways to grow an economy is to add people. Overall growth for the region is key, as it would indicate a robust economy driven by increased output, not shifting internal demographics. Put simply: over the long term, the parish can’t succeed if Youngsville and Broussard are growing while Lafayette’s MSA and the city of Lafayette itself are shrinking.

Must do, must see, must eat, must hear at Festival International 2019

The gist: Festival International is a sensory overload. Try to do too much, and you end up doing nothing at all. Here are our picks (mostly Christiaan’s) of what to do, see, eat and hear at the Cajun Coachella — if you only have the time or energy to choose one thing for each of the essential Festival urges.

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Holy S***, a grocery store is coming Downtown

The gist: Well, it’s a market. But it sells meat and produce and general merchandise, so it counts. Handy Stop Market & Café is slated to open on Jefferson Street this fall.

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Lafayette retail sales have best start to the year ever for almost everyone

The gist: Retail sales in February point to what may be the strongest first quarter in parish history, pending data from March. With $952 million in combined sales between January and February, up from $889 million last year, the first two months of 2019 topped the previous all-time high of $950 million in 2015.

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Some cities aren’t recovering because they never stopped growing. Retail sales in Carencro, Scott and Youngsville keep rising, seemingly unaffected by the area’s economic downturn. Youngsville in particular saw January/February retail sales almost double from $28 million in 2014 — when the price of oil began to tank — to $55 million in 2018, while Carencro saw more modest growth from $29 million to $40 million and Scott grew from $27 million to $40 million.

The cities that did falter are making up lost ground. Retail sales in the city of Lafayette peaked at $676 million in January-February 2015 and haven’t fully recovered. Over those same months this year, sales totaled $662 million, an uptick from the $633 million posted in 2018. Broussard is still down from its peak of $96 million in January/February 2014 to $87 million this year, though that’s up from $78 million last year.

Unincorporated Lafayette is still climbing out of a deep hole. Retail sales in unincorporated Lafayette hit $70 million this January/February. While that’s up significantly from $58 million last year, it’s also down significantly from the peak of $93 million in 2014.

Some categories of retailers in the city of Lafayette are on the decline year-over-year. For example, machine shops fell from $1.9 million in January/February of 2018 to $1.4 million over the same timespan in 2019. And that’s a continuation of a trend, as machine shop sales peaked in 2014 at $4.2 million.  

But some categories of retailers in the city of Lafayette are on the rise year-over-year. For example, oilwell equipment sales rose from $8 million to $8.8 million, though any optimism should be tempered by the fact that this is still down from the peak in 2015 of $31 million.

These retail sales numbers are good news, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because the parish’s retail sales are up in January and February doesn’t mean a great year is guaranteed. Improving sales is one indicator and doesn’t necessarily mean the economy is turning around, particularly when set against historic losses, stagnant wages and a sluggish job market.

Internal LCG review finds Bruno loan deficient, unusual and likely in default

The Community Development Department’s monitoring review of the 2016 loan to Robideaux aide Marcus Bruno found it in likely default for lack of compliance with federal requirements and recommends the nonprofit board that awarded it either modify the loan agreement, call in the loan or pursue legal action.

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Elmhurst Park residents intervene in Charter suit, arguing it’s too late to challenge election

The gist: Several residents in a Lafayette neighborhood that would be left without representation by errors in the charter amendments voters approved in December asked the court on Thursday to dismiss a suit filed to overturn them. They argue the time to challenge the election is up.  

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“The other side in bad faith has found a toe-hold in a typo and is wreaking havoc,” says Kevin Blanchard of Fix the Charter PAC. The PAC is paying the court costs for the six residents of Elmhurst Park — Deborah Amy, Dennis Sullivan, Bruce Sawvel, Jane Sawvel, Harold Bernard Jr. and Daniel Gillane — to intervene.

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 to overturn the election earlier this month 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; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another vote — can correct the errors.

The portion of Elmhurst Park, precinct 74, circled on a map by the registrar of voters.

Elmhurst Park voted 76% in favor of the charter amendments. Several errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts — literally, words describing maps — would leave roughly 300 registered voters in the neighborhood between Downtown and UL’s campus without representation. Charter amendment opponents, joined by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, argue in the suit that the inadvertent disenfranchisement invalidates the election result.

“There were a group of voters who were going to be left out. The council fixed the problem,” Blanchard says of the reapportionment ordinance passed to correct the errors. “Why are we fighting that? Why are people suing to say you have to correct those errors a different way? It’s a hypertechnical, legally precarious argument.”

Errors aside, we know what was intended is a key argument the Elmhurst residents make. The council clearly meant for the legal descriptions to match the maps, the residents claim, when the final version of the maps were adopted to send to voters. According to long-standing legal practice, the pleading argues, the court can order the errors disregarded in favor of the council’s intent, thereby dispensing of the need for an ordinance or a new amendment to resolve the problem. In other words, they’re saying they voted to create a new city council and are asking the court to fix it.

Read the intervention petition here. And the exception here.

Time’s up, let’s move on is the ultimate argument made here. The intervening residents say that plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, a council candidate and avowed opponent of the charter fix, should have challenged the result of the election by Jan. 17, within 30 days after the election results were promulgated (certified, essentially). Kishbaugh’s action was brought against Lafayette Consolidated Government April 5, or 78 days after the Dec. 18 promulgation. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general’s office, intervened later.

City-Parish attorneys have also challenged the timeliness of Kishbaugh’s suit in an exception filed Thursday. Read LCG’s exception here.

What to watch for: April 29, when the court will hear motions. A bench trial is scheduled for May 8, but the court could dismiss the suit at the April hearing, if it agrees with LCG’s legal team. The clock is ticking on getting a fix firmly in place to allow council elections to go forward this fall. Candidates have begun campaigning for city and parish council seats, yet the possibility that elections would be postponed or the council split overturned remains. Should the court side with Kishbaugh and throw out the election result, current council members would keep their seats until new elections can be called, likely 2020.

Lafayette Travel headed Downtown. Thruway Visitors center to remain ‘until the bulldozers come’ on I-49

The gist: Lafayette’s tourism bureau will move its administrative offices Downtown from its current offices on the Evangeline Thruway. The visitors center on site will remain until it’s forced to make way for the I-49 Connector.

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Lafayette Travel will be on Lafayette Street by August. Renovations on the new space, next door to the Alexandre Mouton House, are expected to cost just over $900,000. Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission CEO Ben Berthelot says the new, larger facility can accommodate the commission’s expanded staff. A location Downtown puts the travel bureau where most visitors go first, the city’s central business district. LCVC was also courted to Moncus Park and the University Avenue corridor, but the space next to one of the city’s signature museums made too much sense to pass up, Berthelot says.

An eventual move has been in the works for more than a decade, Berthelot tells me. His predecessor established a reserve to relocate, knowing the I-49 Connector would one day require the facility to leave. By agreement with the state, the structures that currently house LCVC are temporary buildings, able to be moved to accommodate the Connector, a project that’s been in the works haltingly since the early 1990s.

“We can’t continue to invest there when we might get moved by an interstate,” he says, explaining why they couldn’t justify expanding office space at the current location.

The move took heat from Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux who highlighted the exit as yet another example of disinvestment of public resources on Lafayette’s northside. “A million dollar investment into [Downtown] and a future abandonment of North Lafayette period,” he wrote on Facebook. LCVC’s departure follows the devastating closure of the Northside Walmart last month. Boudreaux has also begun stumping for a new public library east of I-49, using the issue to emphasize enduring disparities on either side of the Thruway.

Berthelot insists LCVC will stay until the Connector forces his organization out and that the bureau will continue to maintain the property and the median across from the recently closed Walmart. He tells me the visitors center is committed to the north gateway “until the bulldozers come.”

Why this matters. The northside’s decline has been long and painful. With little movement to reverse a troubling trend, even a relatively small departure such as LCVC’s salts the wound. Investment of public resources in Downtown Lafayette is often viewed by northside representatives as coming at the expense of providing opportunity to their long-suffering neighborhoods.

LUS exploring EV infrastructure

The gist: LUS is in the early stages of pursuing a pilot program to add electric vehicle charging stations to its portfolio and buy electric forklifts for its warehouse.

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If funded, the pilot could put chargers at the Target shopping center on Louisiana Avenue  but isn’t limited to that location. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says work is very much preliminary and not related to surveys underway for a Tesla supercharger at the same site. LUS is also researching EV policies and approaches in major regional markets to write a local one.

LUS applied for funding through Louisiana’s allotment of VW’s settlement program, which is paying billions in atonement money for the German automaker’s use of software to cheat emission standards tests on its diesel fleet. As part of its settlement with the EPA, VW established a $2.9 billion trust to pay for programs that reduce diesel emissions. Louisiana received around $20 million from the trust. It’s that pot of money LUS is after for the pilot.  

This is the second time LUS applied for the VW money. The utility’s first attempt at funding through the trust wasn’t successful. A second round was opened this year, according to Stewart, and last week LUS turned its application, which asks for more than $150,000 in grants.

LUS is at the beginning stages of a major power planning process called an integrated resource plan. Stewart says LUS has shortlisted four consultants to assist LUS on the IRP and will bring those candidates in for staff presentations in the coming weeks. He’s hoping to have a contract in place by June. A big part of the IRP is projecting the future of power demand, i.e. how much electricity the city will need, and how to meet the demand. Stewart has positioned this iteration of the process to be more public than previous go-rounds, saying in recent interviews that he wants the public to help create a vision for the future of the electric utility.

Meanwhile, automakers are investing billions in EV fleets. Lafayette has been criticized for lagging behind national (and even regional) adoption of EV infrastructure. Industry movement is now difficult to ignore. VW itself plans to spend $80 billion over the next five years developing EVs and outfitting them with batteries, according to The Economist, ultimately producing 20 million electric cars in the next decade.

Why this matters. EVs are only one disruption the utility industry faces. Bernhard Capital Partners criticized LUS’s lack of innovation and flexibility when the private equity firm pursued purchasing the right to manage the utility. LUS has been more proactive in the last couple of years exploring renewable energy and other disruptive technologies, contracting wind power from the midwest last year, but nevertheless has been cautious to dive into a fast-moving space.