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Community Agenda 2019

Council readies to dredge the Vermilion, but waits for the Corps of Engineers

The gist: A resolution adopted unanimously by the City-Parish Council Tuesday formally urges action on dredging the Vermilion River. Council members and dredging advocates are now targeting funding and political help while the Army Corps of Engineers completes a dredging study. 

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There is immense political pressure to act. Facing repeated floods and sustained anxiety since August 2016, many residents say little has been done to protect them. Dredging advocates Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon have won the ears of officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, and have rallied flood victims and politicos alike to take comprehensive steps to manage regional waters. The tip of that spear is dredging the Vermilion River to remove years of accumulated. 

“The Vermilion River is in a state of emergency,” Dixon told the council Tuesday night. An August navigation depth survey by the Corps of Engineers shows clogging throughout the river in Lafayette Parish, which Dixon believes is the culprit behind increasingly more common flood events. 

LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river. Before the Corps will OK dredging, it’s studying the impact it would have locally and downriver in Vermilion Parish, where officials have asked for caution. 

The Vermilion has reached flood stage five times in the last year. Indeed, over the last three decades, flood events along the Vermilion have increased dramatically, a phenomenon that correlates with population growth and accompanying development. 

Climate and development appear to play key roles. Some evidence suggests that rain events are getting more intense. Researchers at LSU found that southern Louisiana is getting more so-called “convection showers” — high intensity downpours that burst over shorter intervals, often overwhelming drainage systems. Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish has added acres of rooftops and pavement that shed more water more quickly into drainage channels and, ultimately, the river. 

Public Works Director Mark Dubroc attributes the increase in flood events to those rainfalls. Dubroc has questioned whether dredging will have the impact touted by advocates, arguing earlier this month that there is little evidence to support claims that dredging would have substantial benefit. More to the point, Dubroc is concerned that conclusions are getting ahead of proof. He doesn’t oppose dredging in and of itself, but he questions whether the benefit would be worth the cost. 

“As public works director, I need substantive, identifiable benefit,” Dubroc tells me. 

UL Lafayette researchers are modeling the effect of dredging the river. Responding to the public momentum, Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL, has used a detailed river model to calculate the efficacy of dredging.

UL’s model ran a scenario in which 20 miles of the Vermilion was dredged at varying depths and widths, including leveling the shoals at Coulee Mine and Rotary Point, identified by the Corps’ August survey. In a simulation of the August 2016 storms, the most extensive dredging modeled reduced water levels by at most half a foot and only at the Surrey Street bridge and Coulee Ile Des Cannes. 

“The benefit is not universal in terms of the location. How much and where you dredge” is what really matters, Habib says. It remains an “open question,” he adds, whether more routine storms would see better results. A 1995 study by the Corps of Engineers suggests that dredging could see greater benefit in smaller storms, estimating a 2-foot reduction in peak water levels after 35 miles of excavation at a cost of around $30 million. Habib’s team will run the smaller storm scenarios through its Vermilion model, which includes more recent data and conditions. 

Despite the unknowns, council members are chasing funding. Councilwoman Nanette Cook proposed a $5 million line item for dredging the river in an amendment to LCG’s upcoming budget. It’s not clear how much dredging that dollar amount would accomplish and where the money would come from. Elected officials are targeting state and federal pools, including a $1.2 billion flood control package authorized by Congress last year. Local dollars could be freed up by shifting funds from a handful of road projects and into stormwater diversion, as Mayor-President Joel Robideaux suggested in his introductory budget. An aide with Higgins’ office told the council earlier this month that the Corps estimated the cost of dredging hot spots — i.e. the shoals at Rotary Point and Coulee Mine — to be $5 million. Reached for comment Wednesday, a Corps spokesman could not identify the source of that figure by press time. 

People are tired of studies, but studies are underway. LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river and will not receive one until after the Corps’ impact study is completed later this year. At issue is whether dredging upstream in Lafayette Parish could cause saltwater intrusion or loss of marshland in Vermilion Parish, among other complications.

What to watch for: The outcome of further study. It remains disputed among experts what effect dredging might have and what the cost-benefit would be. Come December, some unknowns will be resolved when the Corps completes its study.

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Ethics Board clears Bruno, finds loan not under supervision of mayor’s office

The gist: Mayoral aide Marcus Bruno did not violate the state ethics code, the Louisiana Board of Ethics determined, when he applied for and was awarded a small business loan from a local nonprofit in late 2016. Ethics found that the loan was not under the supervision or jurisdiction of the mayor’s office. 

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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 proposes moving city road dollars to regional stormwater diversion

The gist: In his outgoing budget, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposes moving $7.5 million in current bond dollars to pay for drainage.

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Explaining the hullabaloo around LUS Fiber and why it matters

LUS Fiber has recently been accused of receiving millions in illegal subsidies from LUS. This is a complex issue with a lot at stake. An explainer is in order.

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How not to sell a parking garage

When the Buchanan Street parking garage was condemned last October, it caused a series of problems Downtown. There have been complaints on social media of courthouse employees feeling unsafe walking longer distances to their cars at night, of defendants being late for trials because it takes so much time to find parking, and of businesses losing patrons who don’t have easy access to street parking now that a couple hundred extra cars are competing for spots. 

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Robideaux claims more fraudulent payments from LUS to LUS Fiber, putting Fiber’s financials at risk

The gist: The Daily Advertiser broke a story late Monday that Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has self-reported a second potential violation of state law regulating LUS Fiber. In his Monday letter to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, Robideaux claims LUS may have made illegal payments totaling $8 million to LUS Fiber over an eight-year period. If the PSC agrees, this could create a significant financial burden for LUS Fiber’s operations moving forward.

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Robideaux gets OK to court tech investors via parish innovation trust

The gist: Trustees on the Lafayette Public Innovation Alliance authorized Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to begin talks with investors interested in leveraging federal Opportunity Zone tax benefits to attract money to tech startups. It’s not yet clear what role LPIA would play in this.

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Now legal in Louisiana, those Bird and Lime scooters still on hold in Lafayette

The gist: State law now makes electric scooters from companies like Bird legal in Louisiana, clearing up a limbo that paused their use in Lafayette. But the City-Parish Council voted Tuesday night to keep the scooters off Lafayette’s streets until new local rules and regulations are approved.

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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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Ad exec Paul Eason likely to be fourth candidate in M-P race

Eason says he has long had a passion for service and feels like the timing is right for him and his family now. The 60-year-old Republican businessman owns and operates Eason Advertising in the Oil Center.

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Council rebuffs Robideaux’s second grab at library funds

The gist: The mayor-president could not flip the votes needed to put an $18 million library fund balance transfer before voters this fall. Meanwhile, a northside library took another step toward becoming a reality.

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