For the city to control its own affairs, this failed experiment in consolidation must end so our city can be free to govern itself.
District 1 contorts Pat Lewis’ current district to crawl along the northwestern boundary of city limits. It’s a near even split between black (46 percent) and white (49 percent) voters. Lewis would no longer represent Downtown or UL’s campus. Lewis currently represents a district that’s 63 percent black.
District 2 adjusts Bruce Conque’s district to include Downtown but removes the Broadmoor area.
District 3tracks the city portions of Liz Hebert’s district with few adjustments. She would pick up UL’s campus from Lewis’ district and continue to represent River Ranch and the area around the Acadiana Mall.
District 4 is composed mostly of Nanette Cook’s district in the city’s southeast. Cook’s current consolidated district is a 61/39 split between city and parish constituents. As drawn, the district has an archipelago of unincorporated islands stretching out toward Broussard and Youngsville.
District 5, based on Kenneth Boudreaux’s district, is the city’s only majority-minority district — 71 percent of the population is African American. Boudreaux would pick up blocks of Freetown near Downtown currently repped by Pat Lewis and continue representing McComb-Veazey and the rest of Lafayette’s northeastern quadrant.
▸ What about the parish council? The parish council map splits most of the city of Lafayette between two parish districts. Broussard and Youngsville would fall under one parish district that loosely tracks the boundaries of William Theriot’s current district. A western district would essentially merge the districts of Kevin Naquin and Jared Bellard and represent Duson, Scott and a small portion of Lafayette. Jay Castille’s northern district, which includes Carencro and a piece of Lafayette, remains more or less the same.
▸ It’s not all black or white: Federal law governs how the voting maps are drawn to ensure proportionate representation for minorities, in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Lafayette, like the rest of the South, that means we tend to think of Lafayette politics in terms of a power balance between white voting blocks and black voting blocks.
Parsing the data here means looking back at the 2010 census, a time when only 5 percent of the city was neither white nor black. Demographer Mike Hefner, who helped draft the proposed districts, says he expects marginal demographic shifts among white and black residents in both the city and parish. However, Hefner expects the parish to see more growth among Hispanic residents in the 2020 census.
How does Lafayette’s experiment with consolidation stack up with the successes and failures of other consolidated governments across the country?
Some argue that breaking up consolidated government would liberate the city from an unfavorable political circumstance. Former journalist and Lafayette public works director Kevin Blanchard is in the camp. He says giving Lafayette a city council won’t fix what’s wrong with consolidation, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The gist: The council did not introduce or discuss any deconsolidation on Tuesday, but there’s still one more council meeting before the deadline to get a measure on the Dec. 8 ballot. Keep your eyes peeled on July 10.
Wait. What do you mean by deconsolidation? Generally speaking, deconsolidation means separating the government functions of the parish and city of Lafayette. Right now, the city and parish have one council, one mayor-president and share several government agencies. That’s the way it’s been since the 1990s.
The catch is that only the city of Lafayette and the unincorporated parts of the parish are actually consolidated (as gadfly Andy Hebert points out routinely at council meetings). All the other municipalities in the parish opted out of consolidation. They have their own councils, their own mayors, their own government functions. Meanwhile, city-parish councilmen represent districts that include constituents in the other municipalities. That means, effectively, that a voter in Scott has impact on decisions that affect the city of Lafayette — say, how LUS operates or spends its money — but not vice versa. To a lot of folks, that’s just not fair, nor does it seem to be working out. Consolidation was conceived to fix the parish budget. The parish budget is still broke.
Now, with parish general fund sniffing the bottom and voters in the parish and city pursuing different priorities, a renewed urgency to overhaul consolidation has arisen. The failure of this year’s library tax renewal exposed that value divide clearly: City voters voted to renew the taxes. Parish voters voted against it.
More than likely, there won’t be a push for a complete divorce of the two sides of Lafayette government, but rather the creation of separate councils. I guess it’s more of a trial separation. In that scenario, Lafayette would obtain its own city council and more control over its assets and finances, but there would remain one mayor-president for the parish, and the two jurisdictions would continue to share services like the Public Works Department.
Seems like a no brainer to me! Well, maybe. There are a lot of thorny and unmapped paths to walk through to get this done. First, what would the maps look like? Redistricting of any sort would tend to get politically dicey. Second, does this actually do anything to fix the unincorporated parish budget? Not really. Deconsolidation dodges that problem altogether. To wit, Councilman Theriot, who does not support the idea of creating separate city and parish councils: “If we were to split, the unincorporated parish would be nothing,” he says. Third, there’s an argument that simply adding a new council for the city of Lafayette doesn’t go far enough. Many of the convolutions would remain problematic, particularly in how the priorities of the mayor-president align with the often competing interests of the parish and city he represents. Maybe a full divorce is what we really need.
Creating a new fire district for the unincorporated parish is another proxy battle about consolidated government
The gist: The council moved one step closer toward creating a new fire district for unincorporated areas of Lafayette Parish. If the boundaries are adopted at the next council meeting, that would likely mean a new millage appearing on the ballot to fund fire services in the area.
Some background: Unincorporated residents don’t have a fire department, so the parish contracts with municipal fire departments to respond to fires in rural Lafayette Parish. Consolidated government has reduced payments to municipal fire departments to rein in spending out of the parish’s nearly depleted general fund. That arrangement has begun to stress the budgets of municipal fire departments; the cost to the municipal fire departments reportedly exceeds the revenue taken in by those contracts. Scott’s Fire Department reportedly saw payments drop from roughly $150,000 annually to $50,000. Councilman Kevin Naquin warns that the fire rating for the unincorporated parish could go up if no action is taken to shore up the shoddy service in the district. That would lead to higher fire insurance premiums for the area, figures Naquin says would greatly outstrip the cost of new taxes in the district.
We learned that Kevin Naquin’s house is worth $275,000. To illustrate the cost discrepancy, Naquin put his insurance plan on the council chamber’s projector screen. Naquin lives in unincorporated Lafayette. Insurance premiums for his home, valued at $275,000, would increase by $4,000 if the unincorporated area fire rating goes from its current Class 5 to Class 7. No millage has been officially suggested just yet. But Naquin floated that a 7-mill property tax funding the new district would cost him $150 a year.
“Spend your money on insurance and you choose to do nothing,” Naquin said. “Ask the insurance company to put your house [fire] out.”
What if the parish disappeared? Councilman William Theriot, ever skeptical of council money grabs, prodded the introductory fire district ordinance for its lack of details and for falling short of solving the problem. Theriot argued that as annexation continues, the newly created fire district would shrink, thereby continuing to diminish the tax base for the fire district. For the second time this year, Theriot proposed a solution that’s not new but is nonetheless radical: divvy up the unincorporated parish and absorb it into each municipality. That’s a concept championed by former Mayor Joey Durel during his tenure.
“This seems to be the only viable solution,” Theriot told me in an phone interview. His idea is provisional, though he believes it’s got legs. That’s one idea to fix the unincorporated parish: Make it disappear.
Arguing about library taxes proves we should be talking about consolidated government and how it simply isn’t working out.