The mayor-president has accused the library system of defrauding taxpayers to the tune of $21 million dollars. Unfortunately for his credibility, the facts don’t back up his claims.
Council is figuring out its new superpower on tax exemptions. That gives economic developers the jitters.
The gist: The City-Parish Council rejected two property tax exemptions Tuesday night, including one for Stuller Inc. That racks up four defeats since local agencies gained a say in a state tax incentive program that economic developers believe is an essential tool for business recruitment and retention.
Stuller sought roughly $100,000 in property tax abatement over 10 years, through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The jewelry manufacturer’s application claimed a $1.7 million investment in its manufacturing operations that would add six jobs to its existing local workforce of around 1,200. A council skeleton crew of five, exercising the relatively new power to approve ITEP applications, voted unanimously to reject Stuller’s application and that of Advanced Products and Systems, a Scott-based manufacturer in front of the council for the second time this year.
Hating incentive programs is all the rage. See what I did there? (I’ll show myself out.) Portions of the right and left seem to agree on this issue. Progressives say it’s corporate welfare. Free-market purists say it’s unfair. See the hubbub over Amazon’s HQ2. Or conservative Councilman William Theriot’s axiom, “We should take some from some and exempt others.”
Growing resentment on either flank could pressure politicians, locally and nationally, to halt or rein in incentive programs. Consider that the last four ITEP applications to come before the council were rejected.
"We need to come together on a better approach," LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me. "This situation is very difficult. It reflects my worst fears when the rules were changed."
For decades, ITEP was a rubber stamp. Until 2016, that is, when Gov. John Bel Edwards reformed the program by executive order, requiring applicants to show some job growth and empowering local taxing bodies to approve the exemptions. Critics of ITEP argue the state was wheeling and dealing with local money. Together Louisiana, an advocacy group organized to fight ITEP, claims the program exempted $4.9 billion in property taxes for companies statewide in 2016.
$3.7 million. That’s the total amount of exemptions Stuller has claimed through the program over the last 10 years, according to The Advertiser. Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux said Tuesday night that the actual amount is lower, given the program accounts for depreciation.
$17 million. That’s Stuller’s property tax bill over the last 10 years, according to Comeaux. Coming up short of an endorsement, the assessor defended the program in remarks to the council, noting that $33 million in parish tax revenue is “lost” to the homestead exemption each year, versus around $2.5 million annually to ITEP.
$89 million. That’s the local household income produced by Stuller’s payroll, according to Stuller CIO Michael DeHart.
The council’s vote sends a message. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, it’s a good or bad one. Some fear the vote will have a chilling effect on business recruitment down the line. That problem, they say, is exacerbated so long as companies don’t know what the rules of the road are in Lafayette Parish. Others believe it's high time the program was stopped.
“We have to provide a level of certainty to companies so they know the financial implications of their investments in our area,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s executive vice president for economic development.
Some parishes have adopted a uniform approach, according to Councilman Bruce Conque, who voted against the Stuller and APC exemptions. Conque says he believes ITEP should be used to recruit new businesses rather than expand existing ones.
Conque said Tuesday night that there lacks a “coordination of efforts” among the local taxing authorities that now have a seat at the ITEP table — LCG, the Lafayette Parish School Board and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Conque tells me Sheriff Mark Garber was unaware of his authority on ITEP as recently as early this year.
“None of the governing bodies have any specific guidelines by which people who want to apply for an exemption can know the rules,” Conque says. “It’s a gamble.”
Lagniappe. Should Saturday’s proposition to create separate city and parish councils succeed, ITEP applicants could be denied by either the city or the parish council.
The gist: The current mayor is against the proposal to create separate city and parish councils, in its current form. Former mayors support the effort. So does former LUS Director Terry Huval and even Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter. The lines are drawn, but a lot of people still don’t know what to think about the proposition. Undecideds are in the driver’s seat ahead of Saturday’s election.
Twenty percent of voters are undecided. That’s according to a scientific poll conducted by pro-amendment Fix the Charter PAC. Organizer Kevin Blanchard says the group’s message plays well in the parish, but the swath of unswayed voters keeps the election up in the air. “I like our chances,” he tells me.
This week former mayors Dud Lastrapes and Joey Durel penned a letter supporting the amendments. Read it here. Durel has been an active supporter of the campaign for some time. Lastrapes is one of the last mayors of Lafayette before consolidation. The campaign has gained institutional support where previous attempts at substantial changes to local government had not. Fix the Charter has raised about $60,000 to date, with TV and radio ad buys airing this week. In 2011, an effort to end consolidation failed miserably, with virtually all spending activated in support of the status quo.
Opponents say the proposal smacks of corruption, will raise taxes and will cede too much of the city to liberals. That’s the mixed bag of complaints circulated by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes and its fellow travelers. The page says the amendments were drafted too swiftly and in the dark, giving rise to suspicion of ulterior motives.
LCAT posts have stoked suspicion that the amendment campaign is really for the benefit of development company Southern Lifestyle Development, given the company employs several figures in Fix the Charter PAC. Most recently, the group has claimed split councils would pave the way for Drag Queen Story Time, a tangent to the debate aimed at the heart LCAT's base. The page and its companion organization Citizens for a New Louisiana are the only public opposition to materialize, outside the mayor-president.
After months of silence, Robideaux has begun fighting the amendments. The mayor-president penned an op-ed on Friday to make his case against the proposition. Robideaux had yet to weigh in on the topic, even as he was probed for his opinion by council members back in August. Recently, he had privately told amendment supporters that he would withhold public comment. The flip irritated some of his erstwhile allies.
"I was disappointed and surprised that the mayor took a stance after he told me he wasn't [going to take a public position]," says Herb Schilling, owner of Schilling Distributing Company. Schilling was one of Robideaux’s biggest supporters in his 2015 campaign. The Northside businessman has backed the charter amendments, circulating a letter to Upper Lafayette addresses.
Robideaux’s op-ed argues the configuration of proposed council districts strips too much power from the city over parish money for drainage and roads, and that the parallel councils are headed for deadlock without a “mechanism” for resolving conflict. Robideaux has since taken to Facebook to sound alarms that the parish council makeup — only two of the seats would come from majority city of Lafayette districts — will make future charter amendments difficult to achieve.
“Any future efforts to change or improve the charter to help the City of Lafayette would be much more difficult, if not impossible,” Robideaux writes. He also created a hashtag. #LetsGetItRight. Because that’s what you do now.
It’s unclear if Robideaux, badly damaged in reputation from the LUS/Bernhard affair, has much clout. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that Robideaux’s opposition has driven some undecideds to support the proposition.
Fix the Charter rebutted Robideaux’s op-ed on Friday, calling the mayor-president’s concerns “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” The way supporters see it, gaining sole control of the city’s substantially larger resources is more important than control over the parish budget. To wit, in the current budget, the city has financed $72 million in capital improvements, including $42 million in roads, all by its lonesome.
Meanwhile, the parish is selling garages to make ends meet. As to the mechanism for resolving conflict, Fix the Charter President Carlee Alm-LaBar says that’s the mayor-president’s job.
“Citizens outside the city of Lafayette are equally as frustrated,” says Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, chalking up dysfunction in parish government to bad leadership. Ritter fundamentally supports the idea that the city of Lafayette should have its own council, like Youngsville. “In looking at it from the vantage point of someone in a city that has a five person council and mayor, I know how effective we’ve been,” he tells my colleague Leslie Turk.
What we’re watching on Saturday: The geographic breakdown, win or lose. Conventional wisdom has it that parish voters hold all the cards, although the 2011 deconsolidation vote got clocked in city districts too. This time around, city voters could be moved by the inclusion of an amendment to shield LUS from management contracts like what Bernhard Capital Partners proposed to public uproar. Retired LUS Director Terry Huval has supported the effort with a “protect LUS” message. On the parish side, Fix the Charter’s Blanchard says parish voters are receptive to the message that a dedicated council would improve accountability on parishwide issues. We’ll tag this election #TooCloseToCall.
That appeal to basic American principles is an about-face of the economic pragmatism used to justify consolidation in the first place. First they wanted to save money. Now they want to save democracy.
The gist: The charter amendment proposition is at the mercy of a low-turnout election that features a pair of taxes and a lackluster secretary of state race. Organized and adequately funded advocacy for the change could squeak out a win where full deconsolidation failed.
Last time deconsolidation was on the ballot, it got clobbered. Before you pitchfork me, Charter Fixers, I understand this isn’t exactly deconsolidation. But it’s the best analog available to set a basis for comparison.
That was October 2011, a big state and local ballot year. Turnout was fine, by relative standards, with 34 percent of registered Lafayette Parish voters participating. The results were predictable. Bobby Jindal took home 71 percent of the local vote. State Rep. Joel Robideaux coasted to re-election with a 58-point margin in the parish. Voters rejected a $561 million bond proposition from the school board by a wide margin. And they said “nah,” 63 percent to 37 percent, to a full-stop dissolution of consolidated government following a one-sided race in favor of the status quo.
Turnout is expected to be low. And that could favor the charter amendment, says UL Lafayette political science prof Pearson Cross. “I think it would at least give them a chance,” he says. Cross says voters tend to resist change, and they didn’t go for the last major attempt at restructuring local government. Around 2,000 early ballots had been cast as of Wednesday afternoon, reflecting a slower rate than October's vote. Cross says he could see voter participation of less than 20 percent.
This is a different proposition with different dynamics. Deconsolidation faced an uphill battle. True PAC, a political action committee founded to fight the effort, raised around $30,000 and garnered support from big names in local politics. Don Bacqué, a former state rep and charter commission member, formed True PAC. He now backs the charter amendment and has lent his voice to Fix the Charter PAC, the campaign supporting the split. That’s a major dynamic flip. Fix the Charter has raised around $40,000 for this effort and will hit the streets this week with mailers and an upbeat ground game.
Original charter framers support the change. Five members of the nine-person charter commission that proposed consolidation in the early 1990s have signed on in support of split council amendment, arguing in a statement that the charter, as LCG's constitution, was always intended to be honed.
"The proposed amendments to the charter improve on our original vision," the statement reads. "While there is no perfect proposal, these amendments are a step in the right direction."
Ed Abell, James Jackson, Jean Kreamer, Paul Colomb and Alan D. Hebert are signatories to the endorsement.
Opposition is scattered. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective. Activist conservatives aligned with Citizens for a New Louisiana/Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes oppose the proposition. Michael Lunsford, executive director of Citizens for a New Louisiana, says the groups will be sending mailers, targeting issues on the Dec. 8 ballot — “That’s what we do,” he tells me — but didn’t specify whether the campaign would single the charter amendment out. LCAT, the Facebook portal for Citizens founded by Lunsford and others, has hammered the proposition as a “non-fix” cooked up to raise taxes.
LCAT's opposition has taken a wide berth. At one time, the page posted speculation that the proposition could be a Trojan Horse built to sell LUS. Former LUS Director Terry Huval has since endorsed the charter split as a way of protecting LUS. Most recently, LCAT suggested that several key figures in the Fix the Charter movement — former LCG Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard, former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, former city-parish attorney Stuart Breaux and Councilman Jay Castille — are pushing the split for the benefit of their employer, Southern Lifestyle Development. Voiced as a question, the innuendo falls short of a direct, baseless claim (none of the parties are named).
Regardless of truth or variety, the scattershot opposition could nevertheless be effective. It does fall short of a concerted, well-financed campaign, however.
“I haven’t seen real mobilization against it,” says Cross of the charter amendment opposition in general. “It could be that they’re banking on people not going for the last one.”
A city fix that’s up to the parish? That’s how I’ve generally read it. It’s part of the perversion of consolidation: city residents will have their government determined by people who don’t live there.
But consider this: The 2011 deconsolidation vote, which would have delivered full autonomy to the city of Lafayette, arguably died in the city. While parish voters overwhelmingly opposed it, the deconsolidation campaign failed to deliver large portions of the city.
Fix the Charter's success may depend on winning the debate within city limits.
Disclosure: Southern Lifestyle Development has advertised in The Current.
The gist: The old federal courthouse renovation project appeared doomed last month after council members pounced on purchase provisions that placed the risk of cost overruns on Lafayette Consolidated Government. But new changes to the contract now make the deal an outright $1.4 million sale that requires the development team to pay for sewer upgrades and removing asbestos.
A game changer: That’s how Councilman Bruce Conque describes the revision. The original deal put the $1.4 million purchase price in escrow, with excessive expenses for the project to be paid from that pool of money. In October, Conque and other council members shredded the contract at introduction, fuming that the deal put too much power in the developer’s hands and gave approval of overages to the mayor-president rather than the council. In particular, the deal would take the unusual step of saddling city-parish government with the cost of sewer upgrades needed to accommodate the 68-unit, 25,000-square-foot complex. Developers, in most cases, pay some of the upfront costs for utilities. Downtown and the city’s urban core more broadly are virtually out of sewer capacity.
Kenneth Boudreaux, a perennial no vote on previous attempts to put the city-owned Downtown property back into commerce after years of blight and vacancy, complained that all proceeds from the sale should be “profit.”
The revised purchase agreement appears to hit all major concerns levied thus far: The sale is a lump sum transaction that requires the development team to pay for peripheral infrastructure needs.
“I’m thrilled,” says Conque. “This benefits everyone, and this project can now move forward.
It’s not quite over. Conque and Jay Castille, another staunch opponent of previous redevelopment attempts, will propose two other amendments to the contract, one to prevent the developer from sitting on the project by eating penalty fees against rising costs, and another to require that the facility’s appearance conform to the city’s Unified Development Code. The previous version gave the mayor-president approval of the complex’s facade.
Earlier this year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux unilaterally selected the team behind the project, led by developer Jim Poche, architect David Weinstein and Ed Krampe, a personal friend of Robideaux's.
Counting chickens: No vote is final before it’s cast, but early indications place the support count at eight. One of the assumed no votes, Boudreaux, will not be at Tuesday’s meeting after announcing health complications associated with a cancer diagnosis earlier this week. With a majority reportedly on board, approval of the contract would be a significant win for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux after months in the doghouse over his pursuit of a deal to privatize management of LUS.
The gist: Utility rates were hiked in the last two years to pay for rising operating costs and a $240 million bond package that never came to be. On Tuesday, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux will present a pair of ordinances, one to reduce electric, water and wastewater rates and another to reclaim the revenues for a bond sale.
NextGEN Utility Systems put a spotlight on the rates by promising to lower them for three years. In council discussions over the course of the affair, council members Kenneth Boudreaux and Bruce Conque questioned whether the rates could be lowered, given the bonds were never issued. The idea is that the rates were raised unnecessarily, and thus some value ought to be returned to LUS customers.
Conque says he would support reductions on electric rates only.
Why were rates raised in the first place? In 2016, LUS sought — and received — approval to apply for $240 million in bonds to build a new power generating plant and other pricey capital improvements. Rates were raised 8 percent to finance the debt, but the LPUA, hearing pushback on plans for the new power plant, decided on a phase-in compromise and reduced the authorized amount to $70 million in February 2018. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has said that event prompted him to reignite talks with Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN Utility Systems, despite that discussions had begun in 2016 and never stopped. In April, Robideaux pulled the bond request from the state bond commission agenda the day it was set to be heard, effectively orphaning the rate increase.
Boudreaux says the money ought to finance bonds, given that was the principle justification for raising it.
“We’re in essence taxing ratepayers,” Boudreaux tells me.
OK. Give me my money back. Hold on to your receipt, ratepayer. It’s more complicated than that. LUS interim Director Jeff Stewart says that while plans for the generating plant were shelved, the system needed the funds to rightsize revenue for the water and wastewater systems, and to finance about $100 million in other capital improvements:
- $48 million in electric system upgrades, including LED streetlights ($7M) and a new substation ($14M)
- $41 million in wastewater, including expansion of a sewer plant ($26M)
- $6.5 million in water system projects
These projects were included in the February resolution authorizing LUS to sell bonds. LUS faces flatlining electric revenue growth as customers use less energy and will spend millions to upgrade sewer capacity in Lafayette’s urban core and on an EPA mandated,10-year review and repair of the rest of its wastewater system. Stewart tells me reducing the rates is possible but requires a thorough review.
“The opportunity may exist, but we haven’t fully evaluated those options yet,” he says.
What to watch for: How else the NextGEN affair impacts decision-making around LUS. If there’s a silver lining in the acrimony that erupted over the privatization scheme, it’s that LUS has taken center stage in civic conversation. Major changes are already in play. LUS is set to cleave off Fiber, and both systems will need new directors. NextGEN’s proposal introduced into the public lexicon plenty of new concepts around energy and raised awareness about the disruptions LUS faces going forward.
The gist: If the Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN proposal to take over operations of LUS has any council support at this point, it was hard to see it at Tuesday night’s council meeting. In an encore performance, this time before the whole council, NextGEN’s management team attempted to make the case for how a private company can do a better job than government running Lafayette’s 120-year-old municipal utility company.
Council to Robideaux: It’s time to state your intentions. Councilman Bruce Conque was insistent Mayor-President Joel Robideaux — who left the meeting long before it was over — state his position on the proposal and whether the effort to privatize LUS will be opened up to other potential suitors (Entergy and CLECO are both interested). Absent Robideaux’s willingness to put his own political capital behind this new direction for LUS’s future, Conque said the administration should move forward on hiring a top-notch director, one who should be attracted with a highly competitive salary.
Right now, LUS is run by an interim director, following the early retirement of longtime Director Terry Huval. Conque’s language was added to a resolution formalizing an agreement between the council and the administration that a new director not be named until the smoke clears on the idea of outside management of LUS.
William Theriot put a pressure cooker time limit on the deal. After NextGEN’s presentation — which Councilman Jared Bellard asked for but requested be abbreviated to less than 20 minutes from the LPUA version — Councilman William Theriot turned to City Attorney Paul Escott and directed him to draft a resolution that would effectively wash the council’s hands of the NextGEN proposal or any others like it for the time being. That resolution, also aimed at easing anxiety the NextGEN proposal has caused for LUS employees, will state that LUS is not for sale, for lease or open to any takeover of its operations and management.
While non-binding, the resolution would ice potential suitors with a clear statement of the council’s position on monetizing LUS. Council members have complained that public criticism has been trained on them, despite not initiating LCG’s flirtation with NextGEN.
Theriot, a staunch and vocal conservative, put his foot down to defend a government-owned monopoly. After months talking with “the owners and consumers of LUS,” he tells The Current he was ready to nip this deal in the bud.
“This is not what the people want,” he said. “Then why are we going through the motions?”
What happens now? We’ll know in two weeks where Theriot’s eight fellow council members really stand on NextGEN’s proposal. He only needs four more votes to effectively kill the deal.
▸ The gist: Discussing vetoes and a crunched parish budget, council members criticized the Robideaux administration’s policies and complained about a lack of communication, revealing some tension between the two branches of local government.
▸ Disorder of business: The council took up a dense docket of pressing and contentious issues on Tuesday, including three budget amendment vetoes issued by the mayor-president. Robideaux had previously vetoed measures to give LCG employees a cost of living raise and to add 10 new firefighters, and a maneuver to effectively table his appointment of new directors for LUS and LUS Fiber by defunding the salaries for those positions. The council voted to override the mayor-president’s pay raise veto, while his firefighter veto was sustained. The two bodies reached an informal compromise to defer filling the open director positions until the smoke clears on Bernhard Capital Partners' proposal to privatize management of LUS. At Robideaux’s request, the council will take up a resolution pinning the compromise down in November.
“I wish we would have this discussion during the budget hearing,” Robideaux said, defending his position on the LUS director salaries. “I certainly would have conceded to the council.” Robideaux complained that the defunding amendment, Bruce Conque’s procedural brainchild, caught him off guard. Conque’s amendment reduced the budget salary of each position to $1, sparking a miniature constitutional crisis that pitted the council’s power to appropriate money against the mayor-president’s power to set salaries for his directors. City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott argued Conque’s defunding move was illegal and the the mayor-president’s powers would win out per common legal practice.
“With all due respect, I sent you a memo on Aug. 23,” Conque replied, noting that he asked the mayor-president to delay interviewing for the open positions until a decision is reached on Bernhard Capital Partners' proposal. “I have had no response.”
Conque has made similar complaints about the administration’s responsiveness, or lack thereof, on its move to sell a parish parking garage to the city to shore up the parish budget.
“I don’t like being placed in a political position, painted into a political corner,” Conque said about the transaction, describing the move as late-coming.“This should have happened months ago. That is not fair to this council.”
“We alerted you to the fact that this was an issue,” Robideaux countered, saying that his office had supplied the council via email with options on the garage transaction in August.
▸ Irreconcilable differences: The tension boiling here is a difference of opinion on how to address the parish budget crunch. Council members insisted the 2-percent pay raises Robideaux vetoed were manageable in the current budget, even as they criticized the mayor-president’s garage proposal as a papering over of the parish’s dire financial situation. Conque was the most pointed in his remarks generally — he has previously criticized the administration publicly for leaving the council out of the loop on the Bernhard deal and issues with the Lafayette Police Department — but other council members chimed in with similar discontentment.
“You’re boxing a parish guy in that if we don’t sell the building, we got to find $770,000 to cut,” Council Chairman Kevin Naquin, who represents a majority parish district, said of the garage deal. Naquin argued that administration should have reconciled the parish budget without assuming the sale would go through, saying that the reality of the cuts needed to be felt.
“I made the cuts. And then it’s like, but we should have cut more. You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Robideaux responded, referring to the deep cuts his administration made in the adopted budget, in some cases 25 percent reductions.
Robideaux has been notably silent on several tax proposals promoted by Naquin, Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux. He argued Tuesday night that he believes the public elected him to find solutions outside of new taxes.
“The public is looking at me to say do everything in your power before you come to me for taxes,” Robideaux said. “I figure this is the kind of solution the people put me in office to come up with.”
▸ All’s well that ends well: This round of flare-ups resolved amicably with solutions identified. It’s perfectly normal for there to be differences of opinion in politics. On a discord scale of one to Washington D.C., this rates maybe a three. But Robideaux’s moves on LUS have clearly rattled the foundation of trust between the two bodies. That may not be irreversible as yet, but it could prove problematic for Robideaux’s agenda if the council continues to feel boxed out.
Robideaux’s move to sell a parish parking garage to the city fails, sending next year’s parish budget into deficit
▸ The gist: Next year’s budget was balanced assuming the parish would successfully sell a Downtown parking garage to the city for $770,000. On Tuesday, the City-Parish Council voted down the mayor-president’s proposal. Opponents argued it was a bad deal for the city that amounted to a bailout for the cash-strapped parish.
▸ In the red: The 2018/2019 fiscal year, which starts Nov. 1, was set to end with a $105,000 balance in the parish general fund.That figure assumed Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s proposal to sell the garage went through in the current fiscal year, which ends Oct. 31. Consolidated government’s chief financial officer, Lorrie Toups, warned that the council will need to make deep cuts in general fund expenditures to square the parish’s finances. The council and administration will need to work quickly to find a fix. Consolidated government is required by law to present a balanced budget.
▸ Bailout or buyout: That’s in the eye of the beholder. Council members opposed to the transaction argued the city’s purchase of the dilapidated Buchanan Street garage, which primarily serves parish courthouse employees and visitors, would saddle city taxpayers with a toxic asset needing potentially millions of dollars in repairs. No figure is yet confirmed, but council discussion suggested the needed repairs exceed $3.5 million. That the parish can’t afford to fix — or even demolish — the building is at least in part the administration’s motivation to sell it off. Robideaux argued, however, the deal would benefit both sides: Upon redevelopment or repair, the city would get a revenue generating asset (the garage earns about $90,000 a year in parking fees right now), and the parish would get a liability off its books. He floated the idea of replacing the garage with a larger parking structure that would feature leaseable retail space on the bottom floor. He also noted some interest from private parking companies.
“Too many times we’ve gone to the rescue of the parish with city dollars,”said Councilman Bruce Conque in an often testy exchange with the mayor-president. Conque criticized the administration’s engagement on the issue, saying Robideaux brought the sale before the council at the “11th hour,” forcing the council into a corner: either approve the sale or adopt an unbalanced budget. Robideaux disputed that characterization.
▸ The idea appears to have been in the works for some time. The $770,000 figure comes from an appraisal performed in 2017 and is now out of date. The administration withdrew an earlier attempt at the transaction in July of this year when it failed to produce the right legislation for council consideration and approval. Robideaux suggested the most recent proposal, including clawbacks for the city pending results of new appraisal, in an email to council members in late August.
▸ This garage has been falling down for years. Whether it’s in immediate danger of collapse is unlikely but unclear. Water seeping through facade cracks have rusted some of the steel beams, according to the 2017 appraisal. Conque claimed he was told by the administration that the garage was given a 90-day window to close beginning in early August. When pressed, Robideaux walked back the urgency of the garage’s condition. Robideaux has not responded to a request to clarify that window.
“It’s not a bailout. If I’m a parish guy, I’m gonna say the city screwed us,”Robideaux argued, making note of the inherent conflict of interest in his bifurcated role as parish president and mayor. He defended his solution as one that balanced the needs of both sides of the ledger. The $770,000 figure was the lower end of the 2017 appraised value, he said, and he couldn’t legally sell it for less. He contended that the structure would generate revenue for the city going forward and would accrue more value when the old federal courthouse is redeveloped.
▸ What to watch for: Budget cuts. The council will take up how to reconcile the parish budget in early November. Missing $770,000 is a massive blow to an adopted $12.4 million operating budget. How they get to a balanced budget will figure into ongoing political discussions about how to solve a seemingly intractable budget problem on the parish general fund ledger.
▸ The gist: Come Dec. 31, 2020, the old federal courthouse on Jefferson Street will be the site of a 68-unit apartment complex and 25,500 square feet of commercial space, along with a pool, clubhouse and common areas.
▸ That’s the substantial completion date (certified by the architect) laid out in the terms of an ordinance scheduled for introduction to the City-Parish Council Sept. 18 with final adoption on Oct. 16. If the development team, Place de Lafayette and Weinstein Nelson Developers — doesn’t meet that deadline, it will face penalties of $10,000 a month, according to the ordinance, and even stiffer penalties, $25,000 per month, if it does not commence construction at the 2-acre site by July 1 of 2019.
▸ Pending council approval, the long-vacant eyesore will be sold to the development group for the appraised price of $1.4 million, money that will be deposited into an escrow account and used by the city for environmental remediation and sewer upgrades. According to The Advocate, developers must cover the first $75,000 for removal of asbestos and any other hazardous materials, and they have the right to terminate the agreement if the city does not pay costs exceeding that amount. Lafayette Utilities System is planning $7 million in sewer upgrades over the next several years, which should address some of the pressing issues of sewer capacity Downtown, but the ordinance calls for the city to reimburse developers for any city-approved sewer work they might need to undertake.
▸ The impact: The project, which includes the adjoining old police department building on Jefferson Street and former AOC offices on E. Main Street, is of immense importance to redevelopment efforts Downtown. It will bring the first major residential component to the city’s core, a potential catalyst for more residential construction in the coming years. It’s also a signature accomplishment for City-Parish President Joel Robideaux, who is poised to break through the impasse that has plagued earlier attempts at bringing the spaces back into commerce — namely pushback from a well-connected courthouse crowd insistent on building a new parish courthouse at the site — with a speedy process that put the mayor himself in charge of choosing the development team. Work at the Jefferson Street site will be underway for all to see just as Robideaux is campaigning for re-election to his second term.
▸ 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.
"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.