Moving library money only looks like a good idea

Mayor-President Robideaux wants to rededicate $18 million from the library’s fund balance to pave roads and clean coulees, but there are hidden costs that must be accounted for.

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LED is helping IBM tempt Lafayette talent to Baton Rouge

At a job fair tomorrow at South Louisiana Community College IBM will try to recruit people to move from Lafayette to Baton Rouge with the help with LED.

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Councilman Bruce Conque proposes compromise on library rededication

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to move $18 million in library funds to roads and drainage projects. Councilman Bruce Conque, however, offered a compromise in a press release this morning, suggesting Robideaux take $10 million, leaving $16 million in the library's fund balance after ongoing projects are complete.

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Conque argues Robideaux's proposal leaves the library without much wiggle room given it lost $3.2 million in annual revenue when one of its three millages failed last year. Revenues will dip from $12 million to under $9 million when the millage rolls off this year. Should library expenses remain at the current level, around $12.8 million annually, it will start running a deficit in the next fiscal year.

"We can part with some of it," Andrew Duhon, vice president of the library board of control, tells me. "The amount the mayor-president wants is inappropriate." Conque said in the press release that library leadership is on board with his counter-offer. The council must approve putting the rededication measure before voters.

Let's see what happens in 2022. That's the essence of Conque's compromise. A $4.5 million property tax renewal is on the block that year. There was a time when library taxes were considered untouchable; now it's hardly a given that voters will support the remaining millages. Should the millage fail, the library could be set up for long-term hardship, the councilman says. Conque is concerned the $8 million fund balance that would remain if Robideaux's proposal is approved by voters is insufficient to cover the costs of planned expansions, at the Clifton Chenier Center and the North Regional Library, and lost revenue.

"Is that the best use of the money, to hang onto it for whenever we need to do those expansions?" Robideaux asked in a report in The Daily Advertiser. "Or is it more important to look at what else we can do with that money?" 

"This is not something we dreamed up yesterday," Duhon says of the expansion plans, saying Robideaux never talked with library leadership before he announced the idea. "These things should be discussed," he tells me.

Where will the money go? That's still unclear. Robideaux told The Advertiser he'll announce the projects before the voters go to the polls. LCG recently took an $18 million cash advance from general fund dollars on a $30 million bond package to pay for street and drainage projects.

What to watch for: Whether other council members sign on to Conque's compromise, which will be offered as an amendment to Robideaux's resolution on Tuesday. The council will vote then to send the proposition to voters in May. Councilmen Kevin Naquin, Jared Bellard and William Theriot have co-sponsored Robideaux's resolution to rededicate $18 million.

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One Acadiana launches ambitious educational attainment initiative

The gist: Jobs of the future require degrees or certifications, but Acadiana’s workforce isn’t educated enough, according to business leaders. At a summit last week, One Acadiana launched 55 by 25, a community-wide effort to boost the number of workers holding post-secondary certificates or diplomas to 55 percent of the population by 2025.

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About 40 percent of the working age population in Acadiana has a degree or certificate. The region ranks fifth in the state. Louisiana ranks 48th in the nation. By 2025 regional attainment is projected to rise organically to 44 percent, meaning there’s an 11-point gap the initiative aims to close. That’s about 44,000 people to credential.

“We’re going to wage war on allowing our citizens to be uneducated,” says Dr. Natalie Harder, chancellor of South Louisiana Community College, a speaker at the summit.

It ends with diplomas but starts with childhood. The initiative aims to improve readiness for kindergarten. Louisiana lags in early childhood education, a key indicator of post-secondary success. Harder says there’s low-hanging fruit too: adults who have left college degrees incomplete but have enough credits to get an associate’s degree.

Lafayette’s already on track; it’s the rest of Acadiana that’s lagging. When you combine college degrees, associate’s degrees, and certifications, Lafayette Parish’s workforce is already at 52 percent. Given a projected organic increase of 5-6 percent across Acadiana, that means Lafayette’s on track already. But the rest of the parish is much further behind, bringing the region’s average down to only at about 40 percent. Lafayette still has a lot to gain, because when employers consider moving here, they look at the quality of the workforce across the region.

The state announced a goal of 60 percent by 2030. Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, commissioner of higher education for the Louisiana Board of Regents and the summit’s keynote speaker, announced that state goal in her remarks.
Let’s all just agree that a smarter workforce is better,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s VP for economic development. Companies have increasingly emphasized workforce education in site selection, meaning as Acadiana fails to educate, it fails to compete for more jobs. Still, there’s a growing recognition that, site selectors be damned, education is intrinsically important, even when it’s not linked to employer recruitment.

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Possible Gannett buyout underscores Lafayette’s fragile news ecosystem

The gist: Gannett, the publicly traded company that publishes USA Today and The Daily Advertiser, is the target of a buyout by a hedge fund-backed firm known to gut newsrooms. The Advertiser’s faced layoffs in recent years, and the buyout could lead to more.

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Digital First Media has offered $1.3 billion in what amounts to a hostile takeover, according to some national reports. Digital First is primarily owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known to cut costs on troubled assets. Digital First owns 7.5 percent of Gannett already and has made previous offers to acquire the company.

What to cut when there’s nothing left? Denver Post journalists revolted when Digital First took over the Colorado paper in 2018 and cut 30 newsroom staffers. In Lafayette, there’s a dark upside: There may not be much meat on The Advertiser’s bone for Digital First to cut. (In fact, it appears that Digital First’s cost-cutting assumptions could be flawed, according to USA Today.) The Advertiser took it on the chin in 2016 when a few reporters were laid off as part of a 2 percent workforce purge at Gannett properties nationwide. Gannett owns five Louisiana papers, some of which have reduced service to only a few days week.

The Advertiser’s executive editor took early retirement. James Flachsenhaar, a 20-year company man, announced his departure, effective Feb. 1. (Flachsenhaar declined to comment for this story.) The company has pivoted sales messaging to hammer the paper’s value as a community resource, asking customers to buy subscriptions to support the paper’s work. That’s a common approach (one The Current uses, too) as newspapers have struggled to find financial footing on shrinking revenue. The number of working journalists in U.S. has declined about 45 percent since 2004.

“Guess I have to kick ass for whatever time I have left,” veteran Advertiser reporter Claire Taylor wrote in a Facebook post sharing the potential buyout news.

Local journalism in Lafayette is in trouble. It’s unclear whether the buyout will go through or, if it does, whether The Advertiser will suffer the same fate as other Digital First properties. Some analysts believe Gannett will decline the offer. Still, the local media buzz is not positive. But what this really shows is how thin the local reporting ranks are. Lafayette has no mainstream news outlets owned locally. The fate of local information is in precarious hands.

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Robideaux seeks ‘visionary’ director to evolve LCG’s IT department

The gist: Since taking office, Robideaux has flirted with smart city initiatives and floated ambitious tech concepts like municipal cryptocurrency. Now, at the end of his first term, he’s seeking a permanent IT director who can help implement his vision.

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Robideaux is looking for a visionary: The job description posted last week describes an IT director who would be heavily involved in updating the department, a $9.7 million division that’s primarily charged with tech support services across consolidated government. The expanded role would include a hand in the administration’s smart city programs. Last year, the administration spent $150,000 to develop a smart city roadmap with IBM and mega-consultant KPMG that includes projects like making Lafayette a Smart City test bed, enhancing cyber security, implementing digital payments for government services and Crypteaux. The job posting says the new director would play an “integral role” in the roadmap. You can see the full roadmap here.

“It’s definitely fair to say the position of the director is evolving into one of a visionary and not just a person with a strong tech knowledge base and background,” Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me.

LCG’s strategic roadmap envisions more tech personnel. The Smart City roadmap contemplates adding a chief technology officer, a chief data and analytics officer and a chief information security officer. Positions like these do exist in other city governments. But, to be clear, the roadmap is largely provisional. It doesn’t necessarily describe concrete plans, but it offers a glimpse of what the administration has in mind — a more tech-savvy consolidated government.

Finding top talent in an election year could be tough, LCG’s civil service director tells me. Whoever would come into that position would face at least some political insecurity and the possibility that a new boss could kick him or her to the curb, particularly if a new administration doesn’t share Robideaux’s enthusiasm for big data in local government. This is an issue Robideaux faces in filling three other positions in 2019 — directors for LUS, LUS Fiber and planning — all while he runs for re-election.

The complication is, it’s an election year,” Civil Service Director Adam Marcantel tells me. “Finding someone to run LUS for three months could be difficult. He may find that with IS&T, too.”

Robideaux has typically been slow to fill new positions. Current interim IS&T Director Michelle Rue has served in a temporary capacity for 10 months. Marcantel says he approached the administration in early fall last year to urge action. Caught up in the NextGEN/LUS flurry, the administration asked to revisit posting qualifications for a new director after the holidays. The administration posted the job last week.

What to watch for: Whether Robideaux ultimately fills all four open positions this year, and what talent he’s able to court. Wingerter herself was a late-term appointment in Joey Durel’s administration, she tells me, pushing back on the idea that an election year complicates the search. Technically, there’s nothing other than political pressure forcing Robideaux to make moves on these positions now. Director positions are not subject to civil service rules when it comes to vacancy, Marcantel says.

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New federal data peers deeper into Lafayette’s economy, and it’s not good

New county-level economic data from the federal government paints a scary and precise picture of Lafayette’s economic decline.

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Cauchemar, Shaq and other Louisiana folklore: This year’s Krewe de Canailles marches on

This year, the parade without barriers gets an expanded route and a new theme: Louisiana folklore. Organizer Paul Kieu weighs in via email on local pronunciation, local folklore (Shaq), pho profanity and more.

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Robideaux moves to rededicate $18 million in library funds to infrastructure

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to reappropriate $18 million of surplus library funds to pay for drainage and road projects. If the council approves the move, the proposition would go before voters in May.

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“Roads, bridges and drainage issues always rise to the surface,” Robideaux told News 15 in a video interview. Robideaux says he plans to use the money for road resurfacing projects and the second tier of drainage improvements in the parishwide initiative he launched last year. The first 27 projects, about $9 million worth of the $31 million cleanup plan, are underway. The second tier includes 50 projects. Full rehabilitation of the parish drainage system could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to public works documents.

Money grab. The council voted last month to fund shovel-ready street projects like the final phase of the Kaliste Saloom Road expansion with an $18 million cash advance on a $35 million bond sale package scheduled to be finalized this year.

The library's bank account has been under fire for a while. Anti-tax advocates last spring successfully fought a renewal of one of the Lafayette Public Library system's three millages in part by criticizing the library's $40 million fund balance, reportedly needed for new construction and long-term maintenance. That millage, which collects about $3.6 million, will roll off next year, reducing the library's annual revenue to $10 million.

Robideaux told council members in an email yesterday that $26 million would be left over after work on the West Regional Library and other capital projects was complete. Assuming his proposition wins out, the library would have $8 million in reserves.

"Politically it's a great move," Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. "But I’m not necessarily going to jump on board because of that. I want to see what’s the long-term impact. How does that impact their future."

Robideaux tepidly endorsed the failed library renewal during last year's Robideaux Report, saying at the time the library was an essential tool in closing the digital divide. Families and children without ready access to computers rely on the library to connect and learn, he reasoned at the time. Of course, Robideaux played a big role in the furor over Drag Queen Story Time, releasing a memo opposing the event and pressing an aggressive review of the library policies and procedures. His appointee to the library's board of control resigned.

This is not the first time Robideaux has targeted library funds. Library Director Theresa Elberson confirmed in an interview with me last year that Robideaux approached the library board to rededicate a portion of its revenue for drainage and CREATE, money that was ultimately pulled from the parish's combined public health fund and used to launch the drainage initiative. Elberson and the library board rebuffed the option at the time.

Library representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

What to watch for: How this impacts Robideaux's political fortunes. It's safe to assume the proposition has a strong chance of passing if it hits the ballot. Robideaux's lost a lot of political capital last year, alienating voters all over the political spectrum. The move is likely to score some points with parish voters, who overwhelmingly voted against the library tax renewal. Whether that's enough to curry lost favor is unclear.

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Magistrate says Warriors for Christ and co. don’t have standing to sue library for Drag Queen Story Time

The gist: Affiliates of a fringe Christian organization, based out of state, sued the Lafayette Public Library to stop last year's Drag Queen Story Time. A federal magistrate recommended the case be dismissed in an opinion issued this week.

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No standing to sue: That was U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna's basis for recommending dismissal of the case, captioned Guidry v. Elberson. Hanna found that plaintiffs Chris Sevier and John Gunter Jr. failed to show "dollars-and-cents" injury from the library's organization of Drag Queen Story Time, given the pair live out of state and don't pay local property taxes, according to The Advocate.

Drag Queen Story Time was originally planned by an LGBTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette in cooperation with the library and with Library Director Theresa Elberson's support. Libraries around the country have held similar events and have typically drawn similar controversy. Local activist conservative group Citizens for a New Louisiana delivered a petition signed by hundreds to LCG. Citizens was not among the parties that sued the library.

Hanna telegraphed this outcome last week during a hearing on an ACLU motion to intervene in the case. He groused that Warriors for Christ, a litigious group based in West Virginia, and its co-litigants had drowned the court with "thousands of meaningless pages," referring to the volumes of filings poured into the court record.

After Hanna sought an out-of-court resolution on the intervention issue, the library and LCG attorneys agreed to throw out a controversial room reservation form following an in-chambers conversation with Hanna and the ACLU.

Local advocates, represented by the ACLU, challenged the library's use of the reservation form that effectively banned Drag Queen Story Time events organized by private parties. Library and LCG attorneys drafted the form hastily to satisfy a "stand down" agreement with the court intended to prevent the library from organizing a DQST event while the suit was ongoing. ACLU attorneys argued the form was too broad and violated free speech rights.

A litigious bunch. Many of the named plaintiffs in the Guidry v. Elberson case are out-of-state, anti-LGBTQ activists known for filing frivolous lawsuits across the country.

Plaintiff Sevier, an attorney, has made headlines for legal stunts like suing Utah for the right to marry his computer and Apple for not preventing porn from ruining his marriage. Rich Penkoski, Warriors for Christ's self-styled pastor, visited Lafayette last fall to protest DQST, at one point booking a room at the library in a bid to show the library had an anti-Christian bias.

Hanna's opinion is not final. Robert Summerhays, the U.S. district court judge assigned to the case, will later issue a final ruling based in part on Hanna's recommendation. The plaintiffs have 14 days to file an objection, according to The Advocate.

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New year, new directors to come for Fiber and LUS

The gist: Fiber and LUS have been formally split since the budget was adopted last year, but the search for new directors to run the now independent agencies was punted until the NextGEN affair was resolved.

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Mayor-President Joel Robideaux intends to fill four vacant director positions this year. Fiber and LUS directorships have been vacant since the fall, when the council approved reorganizing Fiber into its own department. It’s an election year, which could complicate the job search, and Robideaux has been slow to fill other director level positions. LCG also currently has interim directors running the IT and planning departments. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter says the search for an new IT director is starting this week.

Some background: LUS Fiber was created as a division of LUS, not a separate department of LCG. The two shared a director — until mid-last year, longtime LUS Director Terry Huval, one of Fiber’s founders — and shared some administrative staff. As Fiber’s operations have gotten off the ground, it’s built out its own support team. After the split, Fiber became its own department, not unlike public works or planning, and is separate from LUS. Since Huval retired last year, it’s been overseen by Interim Fiber Director Teles Fremin. Jeff Stewart serves as interim utilities director.

OK, so what difference does that make? Many have argued that Fiber has long needed its own dedicated director. The thinking is, it’s a $40 million a year operation that needs full-time attention to grow. That was Robideaux’s rationale when he proposed the split last year, and the council has come on board.

Fiber and LUS are financially intertwined, but the split shouldn’t change that. Fiber owes LUS $28 million for loans fronted by LUS in the system’s early days. Fiber has paid virtually only interest on that debt, but is scheduled to make big payments in the next few years, starting with a $1.5 million payment in 2019. Also, Fiber owes $110 million on bonds that are backstopped by LUS. In other words, if Fiber defaults on its bonds, LUS would be on the hook. Robideaux assured the council that LCG is ultimately responsible for Fiber’s debts, and nothing about the split changes the obligations.

Speaking of the council, the new city council will oversee Fiber once the charter amendments take effect in 2020. There was some question at Tuesday’s council meeting whether the split would swap out regulators. LUS is regulated by the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a council subset made up of the five city-majority council members. Establishing a city council negates the need for an extra body. Insofar as the LPUA governed LUS, Fiber was under its purview. But, by state law, Fiber is audited by the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC, for instance, is reviewing the $1.8 million Fiber billed LUS for service to sewer lift stations that were hooked up but never turned on.

What to watch for: Salaries for the new fiber and utilities directors. Last year, council members Bruce Conque, now LPUA chair, and Kenneth Boudreaux argued Robideaux set the salaries too low: $150,000 for the utilities director and $115,000 for the Fiber director. Qualifications and salary for the utilities director will be set in consultation with LUS’s consultant of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions (no relationship to NextGEN). But the Fiber director’s salary is up to the administration, subject to approval of the city-parish council this year and the city council in the future. Wingerter tells me the $100,000 salary is not set in stone and could rise depending on candidate interest.

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Bird and Lime scooters are caught in a legal limbo

The gist: Dockless electric scooters landed in Lafayette in a flash in December and immediately stirred controversy. Consolidated government is scrambling to figure out legal ambiguities that leave the scooters’ future here in question.

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Local law is silent. State law is unclear. That was the message from Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to the council Tuesday night. “I believe it’s going to be one of two solutions,” he said. “We’re going to have to wait for them to be allowed … or we’re going to present something locally that dictates how they’re used.”

Legal answers are a long way off. City-parish attorneys have been working to draft a comprehensive ordinance that would address shared mobility products — scooter-shares, bike-shares, etc. — in general. Such an ordinance is still at a minimum two months away. Robideaux said the state is working on new legislation to accommodate the scooters, which would set the parameters local governments could use to regulate them. Of course, a new statute wouldn’t be in place until after the Legislature drafts one and the governor signs it into law.

LCG has given a cautious welcoming to the scooters. LCG’s legal team is in talks with scooter reps and DOTD to sort out an interim answer. Without a solution, the city could face liability issues. Council members raised concerns about LCG’s exposure to a suit if someone got hurt riding the scooters.

“The law is not specifically clear that’s our responsibility — there’s a lot that goes into where the liability lies,” Robideaux said. “I’m not interested in having LCG at risk.”

Meanwhile, complaints continue to pile up. Scooter skid marks have scuffed up Downtown’s sidewalks — Bird and Lime explicitly tell users not to use sidewalks — which were powerwashed last year.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to this,” LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me. “We have not come to a level of comfort where we’re sure where we’re going with it.”  

Bird and Lime scurry up this kind of legal scramble wherever they go. The companies have a tendency to drop in overnight and work out the details as they go along, drawing plenty of scorn for the tactic. Local laws generally don’t exist to regulate the scooters, so cities and towns across the country face a similar scramble with varied results. Some cities like Memphis, Tenn., have embraced them as a welcome option for short trips, folding scooter-sharing into comprehensive policies. Bird promotes using the scooters on bike lanes. In Portland, Ore., 17 scooters have been thrown into the Willamette River.

New Orleans said no to writing local ordinances for a scooter pilot program before Bird showed up in Lafayette last year. New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said in a statement at the time that the scooters’ “potential complications for public safety are too high for us to move forward." Lawmakers there have cited unsuitable infrastructure and hostile drivers as a reason for concern.  

What to watch for: If the scooters stay or go. While it’s clear the administration is interested in finding a solution, it’s possible the law won’t allow it.

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