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Flare-up on jail funding previews tough sledding for the future parish council

The gist: A public spat between the sheriff and the Robideaux administration over jail funding is closing out the end of budget preparation. The sheriff wants parish government to shell out $1.7 million more to fund jail expenses and has brought lawyers to bear. 

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Get caught up, quickly: The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center is funded by a combined property tax that partially funds both the jail and the parish courthouse, services mandated by the state. Historically, the jail has taken the lion’s share of that millage, which was created to fund much smaller outfits at both facilities decades ago. Parish government is hard-pressed to pay more out of its general fund for state mandated services generally. 

What does the sheriff want? $1.7 million in contracted salaries for jail expenses like medical and mental health care, food service, maintenance, laundry, all of which are services mandated by the state, according to LPSO Chief Deputy Carlos Stout. The revenues would come from the parish general fund.

“We never considered this to be an argument,” Stout tells me. “It’s a difference of opinion about the way the law’s being interpreted. This is an issue that’s been discussed since 1992.”

What’s the dispute? Whether the state actually requires the parish to pay what Garber’s asking. The administration argues parish government isn’t responsible for costs associated with housing non-parish prisoners. Of 644 inmates currently housed at LPCC, roughly 55% is held on parish government’s behalf. City prisoners comprise the second largest share of the population at 24%. The remaining 20% is a mix of inmates housed for other Lafayette Parish municipalities, the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshal. In a memo to council members, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux touted a $500,000 increase in the proposed budget for “operational expenses.” Stout says that figure covers state mandated costs for housing prisoners and isn’t available to cover the contractual services needed.

Where’s the beef. Council members and sheriff’s officials have blamed the administration for failing to acknowledge the jail’s budget shortfall and opposing new taxes for the jail and district court system, proposed by council members in 2018. Robideaux maintains the budget is just fine and that the existing millages will grow enough over the long term to take care of business. In the memo published Tuesday, Robideaux pushed back against the criticism and suggested the issue could play out in a suit, pointing out that attorneys retained by the sheriff have pressed similar litigation elsewhere in the state. 

“I think what’s being overlooked in [Robideaux’s] projections are the capital improvement needs that require urgent attention for the courthouse,” Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. “When you see a surplus, that doesn’t even begin to cover the capital improvement needs.”

We can work it out. Robideaux has urged councilmembers to wait for further legal input before making any moves, budget-wise. The issue could be taken up after final adoption as a budget amendment by the current council or the next councils. Stout notes the LPSO brought the budget issue to the council and administration in April of this year. Conque, for his part, agrees with Robideaux’s suggestion to let the lawyers figure it out. 

Speaking of new councils. This is a great illustration of the serious budget pressure the new parish council will face. As Robideaux points out, paying the sheriff would likely mean cuts elsewhere in the parish budget, which last year briefly went into the red after the mayor-president’s plan to sell a parking garage fell through. Some argue this is precisely the sort of issue better addressed by a dedicated parish council. 

“When they start looking at the needs of the parish, it’s like ring around the rosey,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who serves on the council transition committee, tells me. “When the chairs are set somebody is going to be left standing up.” 

Why this matters. The parish budget is, objectively, a dumpster fire. While it takes in close to $100 million each year, most of the revenue is in dedicated funds. Unlocking the consolidated budget under the new split council configuration could put even more pressure on parish finances while capital needs for facilities like the jail and courthouse continue to grow. Political observers expect a difficult slog for those elected to the new parish council, and the political theater around the jail could be a glimpse of what’s to come. The budget is scheduled to be finalized at a special council meeting Thursday, but a flurry of amendments could delay adoption until later this month.

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Councilwoman wants city trash contract canceled

The gist: Councilwoman Liz Hebert wants representatives from Republic Services to answer publicly for what she views as widespread problems plaguing garbage collection throughout the city and unincorporated parts of the parish. She’s requested an update from the garbage contractor at Tuesday’s council meeting and is looking into whether the contract can be canceled.

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“They are not delivering what they promised,” Hebert tells me, noting that some of her District 8 constituents have gone two to three weeks without garbage pickups. The councilwoman says she gets complaints from residents “every single day. I can’t tell you the last day I didn’t get a call or email.”

Hebert says a bigger issue for her district is that roughly half of the 26,000 residents she represents are scheduled for Friday pickups, and delays often mean they wait an entire weekend with garbage sitting outside. “It’s ridiculous,” she says.

District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque suggests missed Monday routes in his district could create problems throughout the week when Republic has to double up. “We have had nothing but complaints,” says Conque, who estimates he fields an average of one to two complaints a week but says LCG’s staff sometimes handles issues without involving him, noting that the pace of grumblings did accelerate after Tropical Storm Barry due to late storm debris collections.

It’s not just missed collections. Both council members say hydraulic fluid from Republic trucks and “leaking trash juice” are also ongoing issues (the contract allows LCG to inspect the trucks, but it’s not clear whether that’s happening), and Hebert says she’s been sent videos showing the company mixing recycling with regular trash. 

The chemicals the trucks deposit on streets can damage the asphalt, and Hebert notes at least one recent instance where Republic was forced to pay for a private street it damaged. While it’s LCG itself that collects money when the company is delinquent, charging Republic $25 a day for missed pickups (fines start on the second day), the trash contractor has even begun reimbursing residents, according to Hebert. “I have been making such a big deal about it, and the neighbors have been making such a big deal that they have gotten reimbursement,” she says.

Lafayette isn’t alone in its ongoing complaints about Republic, as Baton Rouge is also struggling with spotty service. In response to that dissatisfaction, the company last month laid out a plan to hire more workers, update its fleet and continue twice-a-week trash collection, The Advocate reported. 

Councilwoman Liz Hebert, second from right, is asking LCG’s legal department whether the trash contract with Republic Services can be canceled or non-performance.

Buyer’s remorse. Councilwoman Hebert has it. As a new councilwoman in 2016, she supported an amendment to the no-bid contract with Republic, a five-year extension to 2023 that at the time was worth $73.5 million. As part of those negotiations on a contract originally signed in 2008, Republic offered to take over curbside recycling for the current price the Recycling Foundation was charging — $2.40 per resident — on a different contract that was about to expire. The lowest bid for curbside recycling collected under the Durel administration was $5.17 a month. It was a big selling point, both council members recall. 

“Yes, I supported it back then,” Hebert says, “but knowing what I know now, that’s why I’m fighting to get the contract canceled.”

It still isn’t crystal clear the extension was legal. After the AG’s office opined in March 2018 that the extension violated state law, citing a 10-year limit on such non-exclusive franchise contracts, LCG’s attorneys in May 2018 filed a petition for declaratory judgment, asking the 15th Judicial Court to weigh in on the legality of the extension. In January, without ever scheduling a hearing, District Judge Ed Broussard signed off on a joint motion for consent judgment filed by LCG and Republic — in essence agreeing with the two parties’ own assertion that the contract was not subject to the time limitations the AG cited, court records show.

Hebert tells me she plans to ask LCG’s legal department to research whether Republic is in violation of the terms of its contract. According to LCG Environmental Codes Supervisor Russell Bourg, the Arizona-based company has only once been cited for falling below its average monthly service effectiveness rate of 99.75 percent, which is calculated quarterly per terms spelled out in the contract. Republic was fined $75,000 during last year’s first quarter, in addition to other fines it racked up — blaming problems in part on employees calling in with the “Super Bowl flu.” 

“I prepared the paperwork for [the $75,000 fine]; I don’t know if it’s been collected,” Bourg tells me, noting he turned the paperwork over to the city-parish attorney’s office. Bourg referred questions about daily fines assessed to Republic in 2018 and 2019 to Ariel Fischer in the mayor’s office. Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for those tallies. 

It’s not hard to make the case that Lafayette is paying too much and getting too little. Should Hebert get her way, there are some indications LCG could get a better price by putting the contract out for bid.

Residents in the city and unincorporated areas are paying $30.94 a month, a price that includes once-a-week trash and yard pickup ($24.37), curbside recycling ($2.63) and environmental services ($3.94). The cost of track pickup has doubled since 2000, when the city had a twice-a-week pickups and the parish once a week.

Residents in the city of Carencro, which put its curbside garbage and recycling contract out for bid last year, pay Houma-based Pelican Waste & Debris $19.30, almost $7 less than they were paying before.

Sources with knowledge of Republic’s Lafayette office say the company has been plagued by an extraordinary number of turnovers in recent months, and they believe that is at least partially to blame for the inconsistent service. 

Republic Services General Manager Steve Sytsma, who runs the local operations, did not respond to an email and text message seeking comment for this story.

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Robideaux moves to appoint split council transition team

The gist: While a legal challenge to the charter amendments winds through the courts, the mayor-president has begun preparing for government by two councils. As of this week, Joel Robideaux has defined a transition team structure, and four appointments have been made.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Lafayette voted to split the City-Parish Council in two, cracking open some tough questions about how to dole out financial responsibility. That vote still faces a legal challenge that could overturn the decision.

“As we approach a legal resolution of the charter amendments,” Robideaux wrote in a Monday email to parish leaders, “it seems prudent to begin putting together an independent [Robideaux’s emphasis] transition team to work through anticipated and unanticipated issues.”

The team is comprised of appointees from parish offices plus UL President Dr. Joseph Savoie. Thus far four representatives have accepted appointments:

  • Louis Perret, clerk of court
  • Keith Stutes, district attorney
  • Mark Garber, Lafayette Parish sheriff
  • Charlie Fitzgerald, district court judges  
  • Conrad Comeaux, Lafayette Parish assessor

Other appointees will come from the parish assessor, the City-Parish Council and the LPUA. Mayors of the other Lafayette Parish municipalities will get one collective appointment.

Creating a transition team has been in the air since at least December. A joint team, appointed by the council and the administration, was floated just weeks after the charter amendments passed. The momentum was derailed by the discovery of errors in the charter amendments that drew a legal challenge. The original concept was a 15- to 20-person team with specific carve-outs for private citizens, according to comments from Councilman Jay Castille at the time. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me the mayor-president’s approach with the current structure is to bring to the table parish officials who have budgetary skin in the game.

“The timing is critical,” Councilman Bruce Conque, a charter amendment advocate, tells me, noting that election qualifying is rapidly approaching. The council has its own transition team to handle the logistical considerations internal to the council, things like sorting out office space for 10 council members instead of nine, and so on.

The transition team has a difficult charge — namely, picking apart a consolidated budget that, in many ways, props up a fiscally fragile parish government. Shared costs for shared services will make for thorny conversations.

“The parish fiscal crisis will remain as the parish budget issues can only be expected to remain status quo at best,” Councilman Bruce Conque wrote in an email to parish leaders this week. “I do not envy whoever will be the new mayor-president.”

What to watch for: How quickly the team is seated and whether this is all for naught. We’re playing a tricky game here. Wingerter tells me the consensus view among parish leadership is preparation is paramount, even if there’s a risk that the courts could pause or even throw out the transition to government by separate parish and city councils.

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Transition team named to tackle change to separate councils

The gist: Two separate councils will govern Lafayette Consolidated Government starting in 2020, following Saturday’s vote. A four-member council liaison team will convene to cut through the weedy details.

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More councils, more problems. Or so the saying goes. The reality is the team could tackle a swath of issues on its way to untangling a complicated government contraption, not the least of which would be dealing with shared administrative functions. The team’s agenda isn’t yet defined, Councilman Bruce Conque tells me, but broadly speaking it’s tasked with paving an orderly path for transition. That begins with prepping the paperwork necessary to allow candidates to qualify and run for parish or city council seats in 2019. The new councils will get to governing in 2020.

The team is comprised of the charter amendments’ core proponents on the council. Council Chairman Kevin Naquin appointed himself, Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux to the transition team. Castille and Conque authored and pushed the amendments through the council.

Divvying up the budget pie won’t always be straight-forward. That’s what Mayor-President Joel Robideaux didn’t like in the proposition, when he groused that the parallel councils could deadlock. The transition team won’t necessarily be tasked with sorting out who pays for what; that’s an issue to be tackled at budget time. But in preparing the budget in 2019, the last city-parish council ever will need to produce a document that separate councils can work from. Some functions are easy to figure out. The city council, for instance, has sole purview over the Lafayette Police Department. Easy peasy. But others, like the $5.6 million consolidated government spends on its IT department, will be stickier. The city pays 87 percent of that cost, the parish pays 13 percent; each share is determined by sales tax receipts. Public Works, the largest consolidated agency, could present the biggest challenge.

There are 25 different methods to determine who pays what. And you thought splitting restaurant checks was frustrating. The methods, called allocation formulas, are determined by a contractor, but the council (later councils) approve them in the budget process. Soon to come, the government equivalent of “I only ordered a salad.”

It’s nothing that’s not solvable,” Conque says of the complications ahead. Given the holiday season, the team likely won’t meet until 2019.

What to watch for: Candidates. Four incumbent council members — Liz Hebert, Bruce Conque, Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook — can run for either council. Conque has already declared to run for city council. Naquin has one term left and can spend it on the parish council only, given his residence outside of city limits. With Boudreaux, Castille, Jared Bellard and William Theriot all termed out, there will be at least five open races, most of which will likely be for parish council seats.

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Council/administration fault line grows wider after property tax failure

Council members and the administration are at odds on how to fix the parish budget.

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New city marshal is ‘temporary’ interim, so to speak

City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque says the appointment of former federal Magistrate C. Michael Hill as interim city marshal is a temporary replacement pending final action by the Lafayette City-Parish Council.

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In making no statement on Drag Queen Story Time, the council sent a mixed message

In drafting the non-binding resolution on Drag Queen Story Time, William Theriot and Jared Bellard’s apparent intent was nakedly cynical: trap councilmen on a wedge issue as fodder for future politicking.

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The parish budget is short a parking garage

The gist: Both the current budget and the proposed budget were balanced assuming that the parish has sold a Downtown parking garage to the city for $770,000. That sale hasn’t happened yet.

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“As it stands right now, we’d have to amend the budget to cut costs,” says Councilman Bruce Conque. Conque raised the parking garage issue in a review of the parish general fund at Tuesday’s council meeting. The parish general fund’s current balance is in the red $176,099, pending some remaining audits. An ordinance to transfer money from the city to parish budget to execute the garage purchase was deferred last month. Conque pressed Chief Administrative Officer Lowell Duhon on the administration’s efforts to sell the crumbling garage, located near the parish courthouse Downtown, ahead of the close of the budget process. Filling in for a briefly absent Robideaux, Duhon said the administration was working to get something done ASAP.

There’s a tight window to balance that budget. The council will vote to approve next year’s budget in a couple of weeks. Theoretically, if a sale isn’t underway, the council would be approving an unbalanced budget. The end of the fiscal year is Oct. 31. It’s worth noting that even if the sale goes through and revenues move as planned, the parish general fund is estimated to finish 2019 with just $104,000 in the bank.

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In meetings with city leaders, Bernhard’s vision for LUS begins to emerge

As part of its plan to take over management of LUS’s electric division, Bernhard Capital Partners is presenting a vision of creating a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette.

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