The PSC, which has limited oversight of LUS Fiber, shut down any further scrutiny of a pending self-report from December 2019.
The gist: Preserving CREATE was an uphill battle for supporters who staged a social media campaign to urge “no” votes on a ballot proposition to rededicate the property tax that supports the cultural economy initiative. While CREATE was generally thought to be more popular inside city limits than elsewhere in the parish, the rededication push won out decisively across the entire parish.
Parish and city precincts voted “yes” at about the same clip, says Christie Maloyed, a professor of political science at UL. The rededication was supported by 52% of city voters — in effect ending CREATE — compared with 55% of voters elsewhere in the parish. It’s hard to get a clean picture of the breakdown because of the huge turnout of early voters, which are reported without precinct data. But 58% of early voters supported the rededication, which split the $500,000 property tax in two to pay for rural fire protection, and parish roads, bridges and drainage.
“Anyway you slice it, it looks like a rare point of consensus between the city and the parish,” Maloyed says.
It’s not uncommon for city voters to behave differently than elsewhere in the parish. A 2018 tax renewal supporting the parish library system was pushed through by overwhelming support from parish voters, while voters in city limits voted to keep the tax in place. The ill-fated school sales tax in 2017 was walloped by parish voters, but city voters broke at higher numbers for the tax. At least a narrow majority of city voters backed Carlee Alm-LaBar over Mayor-President Josh Guillory in 2019. A handful of precincts that straddle city limits throws a little uncertainty into the math. But the sense that city voters and parish voters had different priorities was a key driver of the Fix the Charter campaign that successfully created separate city and parish councils.
CREATE was born into controversy. Former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux tacked the measure onto a drainage tax, outraging many voters who felt coerced into supporting the cultural economy tax. Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin, who advocated for the rededication, says his constituents didn’t reap the benefits of the program and watched it accumulate a fund balance while parish money problems mounted.
“They’re paying for CREATE and they don’t have anything that’s benefiting from it,” Naquin says. That view inverts a refrain among CREATE supporters that the rededication would tax residents across the parish to pay for a service that only benefits unincorporated Lafayette, two years after voters there defeated a new tax proposed to pay for rural fire service. CREATE did fund some recreation projects in parish parks, but the initiative moved little money on the whole, not just outside city limits.
Saving the CREATE tax may not have saved CREATE. Guillory campaigned on shifting public dollars out of cultural investments, taking particular aim at CREATE. Once he was in office, the program was mothballed and Kate Durio, a Robideaux assistant who ran the initiative, left the administration. Guillory resisted calls to use the $890,000 accumulated in CREATE’s fund balance to plug budget holes that supported signature cultural programs like the Heymann Performing Arts Center and the Lafayette Science Museum. Ultimately, the councils and the administration agreed to use $300,000 in CREATE dollars to soften the budgetary blow on the science museum, which faced insolvency when Guillory stripped it of city funding.
“I honestly take comfort in the fact that [Guillory] doesn’t have that money to waste,” Durio says. From her vantage point, the odds of survival were stacked against the program, which she maintains was still in its infancy. Faced with a hardening political message in local government that culture and recreation are not worth funding with public dollars, CREATE was swimming upstream, she says. Durio mostly expected the result.
“I’m surprised that many people voted ‘no,’” she says.
What happens now? Seventy percent of the CREATE millage will now fund rural fire protection. The other 30% will chip away at a parish infrastructure backlog in the tens of millions of dollars. About $500,000 of the CREATE balance remains, Parish Councilman Josh Carlson says, and there are no immediate plans for what to do with it. Naquin, meanwhile, is on a mission to shore up parish finances overall. He tabled a measure to propose a small parishwide sales tax to help parish government claw its way into financial stability. Naquin argues the funding pulled from CREATE, while small, will make a meaningful difference in improving fire ratings in the unincorporated areas. Both Naquin, a musician, and Carlson, who served on the Heymann Center board, push back on the assertion that ending CREATE is an assault on the arts. Given the dire financial situation in the parish budget, Carlson says, every bit counts.
“No, this doesn’t solve everything. But $500,000 goes a long way when there is very little money to begin with,” Carlson says.
What to watch for? Whether private dollars do step in where public investment recedes. Guillory telegraphed a shift away from government funding for cultural programs, signing a pledge with arch-conservative backers to carve “nonessential” spending out of the budget, and that goes well beyond CREATE. But with the economy still broadly depressed by the pandemic, private dollars may not be able to pick up the tab.
Reaching conclusions already voiced by the Guillory administration and its predecessor, a long-awaited forensic investigative report on suspect transactions between LUS and Fiber accuses former Director Terry Huval of flouting state law to inflate Fiber’s revenue by millions of dollars.
In the next couple of years, LUS has to make a series of huge decisions. But the issues that matter are getting drowned out by the political theater that’s been drummed up around potentially illegal payments from LUS to LUS Fiber. Lafayette can’t afford to get distracted.
What happens next with the Buchanan garage is unclear, but the options are limited.
Marcus Bruno, former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s embattled aide, has landed a job with the state’s division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.
The gist: From the jump, the new mayor-president is moving on his campaign promises. He’s got big plans to streamline consolidated government in the face of mounting financial pressure on both the city and parish budgets. Now sworn in, along with two brand new councils, Josh Guillory promises he can do more with less.
“We face a host of challenging conversations, and we are ready,” Guillory said Monday in his inauguration remarks. He framed 2020 as a pivotal year for Lafayette Parish, saying its “future as a family-friendly, business-friendly place hangs in the balance.”
It all starts with restructuring the Public Works Department. He proposed splitting transportation and drainage off from the agency into two separate departments, each with appointed directors of their own. Guillory argues that siloing the divisions will force focus on common sore spots for the public: traffic and stormwater management. Exactly how the reorganization will work in practice remains unclear, particularly when it comes to areas where the departments would overlap. Still, the proposal moved ahead and will be up for final adoption later this month.
“I haven’t had time to study the details on how this might play out,” interim Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux, appointed this week, said in responding to questions from newly seated council members. The plan eliminates four currently vacant positions — two mechanic and two environmental inspectors — and would zero out the associate director position currently held by Terry Cordick, who will retire later this year. Guillory said the savings realized from removing those positions from the budget would free up, at minimum, $67,000 for other purposes despite the added expense of new directors. Here are the proposed new salaries:
- Transportation Director: $120,000
- Drainage Director: $108,000
- Public Works Director: $125,000
It does appear that Public Works could benefit from reorganization. Whether this particular proposal addresses the right problems within public works – including millions in infrastructure maintenance backlogs for drainage, roads and public buildings — is a separate question. One criticism of the proposal is that the most pressing issue facing the department is a lack of resources and manpower to address regular maintenance. Another is that the department is already top heavy and suffers from poor cooperation among its divisions.
“If the system was what it should be, there wouldn’t be much of an outcry,” Pam Granger, Youngsville’s city engineer, tells The Current. She sits on a transition committee convened to review Public Works and recommend changes. That committee did not produce or review the proposal introduced Tuesday night. Councilwoman Liz Hebert tells The Current she supports the administration’s proposal, but adds that she believes constituents would like to see more “boots on the ground” to shave delays on service requests; Guillory insists that the restructuring will not worsen service.
Work has also begun on reviewing the Unified Development Code. On Monday, Guillory doubled down on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” the UDC — which centralizes a number of zoning and building regulations into one place — with something more business friendly, promising to loosen regulations and tinker with processes critics say have slowed down permitting and increased costs for development. A 40-person committee, which includes many vocal critics of the UDC alongside campaign supporters of former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, Guillory’s opponent during the election, met in late December to start work. Alm-LaBar played a key role in developing the UDC while serving under the administration of Joey Durel. How much of the existing regulations remain will determine whether the UDC is truly replaced or merely tweaked.
Guillory has also promised to pursue an independent audit of LUS. Linking the effort to the internal investigation carried out by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in the latter half of 2019, Guillory committed to further vetting LUS’s financial practices. Robideaux’s inquiry surfaced accusations that LUS made millions in improper payments to LUS Fiber in an attempt to prop up the municipal telecom. Just before leaving office, Robideaux suggested Fiber’s business model isn’t working. The results of the inquiry are now in the hands of the Public Service Commission, which has limited regulatory oversight over Fiber.
Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles will remain interim directors of LUS and LUS Fiber. Robideaux appointed Duhon, then his chief administrative officer, and Miles to those positions to carry out the inquiry, at one time inaccurately claiming the leadership shakeup was linked to requests by the PSC. Questions have been raised about Duhon’s and Miles’s qualifications, along with the pay increases that accompanied the appointments. Robideaux’s rebutted concerns of LUS’s consulting engineer, retained as a bond-holder requirement, about the appointments by arguing that they were temporary and meant only for the purposes of the review. The review wrapped with the release of his report in December.
What to watch for: How the new administration works with the new councils. Robideaux was widely criticized for poor communication of his initiatives, which ultimately soured his relationship with the council and other parish elected officials.
The gist: Nearly wrapped up after three months of biweekly meetings (the every other week kind), the committee charged with smoothing Lafayette’s transition to government by two councils wrestled with the essence of consolidation: cost allocation between city and parish funds for common services. Members lamented political tension to come.
Hold up. What’s cost allocation? Glad you asked. It’s basically how LCG splits the check between city and parish money. LCG has one public works department, one planning department, one finance department, etc. But the law requires that city funds go to city services and parish funds to parish services. About two dozen accounting methods are used to determine how much each general fund — a pool of unrestricted dollars — should pony up to run the government.
“People’s salaries are charged all over the place,” LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups told the committee Tuesday. That about sums up the challenge. Cutting or adding cost from either budget — i.e. by either council — isn’t necessarily straightforward.
The big elephant. That’s what Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux called cost allocation. Essentially, observers expect that unlocking allocation is a pandora’s box for dysfunction in consolidated government. Both city and parish funds are constrained now, and adjusting allocations between two bodies could be the theater of political conflict going forward.
City taxpayers bear most of the cost of consolidation. Around 80% of shared costs are paid for by the city general fund. Since Mayor-President Joel Robideaux took office, the city’s share has increased $20 million because of changes in allocation. The parish share fell $9 million.
“It was a noble gesture to create this new form of government,” District Attorney Keith Stutes said in closing remarks. Stutes probed whether the city and parish general funds could be mixed into one account but backed away from the recommendation, instead pleading for the incoming administration and councils to find common ground. “I have to say it’s disconcerting to see that it’s devolved into a combat,” he said of city-parish budget tension. In 2016, Stutes sued LCG for not adequately funding his office, a cost on parish government mandated by the state, but later dropped it.
The committee will produce a memo of questions and recommendations. The committee meetings have often been an education in existing problems in consolidation. The transition kicked off late in the year, convened in August by Robideaux after a protracted legal battle left the charter changes in limbo. It appears the new councils will likely need their own education on how to move forward, and will do so under intensifying financial pressure. The final committee meeting is Dec. 18.
The gist: After what his office called “repeated attempts to secure critical funding for daily operations,” Sheriff Mark Garber confirmed Tuesday that he is cutting 42 mostly corrections jobs from his workforce of 748. A press release announcing the reduction in personnel included more cuts to diversion programs started and expanded under his predecessor and long held up as successful […]
The gist: Challenged by the council to be more transparent, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux delivered to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority potentially damaging comments gathered by the administration during its investigation of payments by LUS to LUS Fiber.
Get caught up, quickly. LUS and LUS Fiber have been under fire for a pair of potential violations of a state law that prohibits government dollars from propping up the municipal telecom. The most recent of the two, $8 million paid over eight years for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by Robideaux in July. In a press release distributed Oct. 11, Robideaux announced he was removing LUS and Fiber’s interim directors, claiming the swap was made to “facilitate an internal review on behalf of the Public Service Commission,” and connected the review to the power outage monitoring payments. The PSC denies any involvement and has distanced itself from Robideaux’s attempts to link his efforts to its limited oversight. Robideaux named his chief administrative officer, Lowell Duhon, to oversee LUS, and Kayla Miles Brooks, Fiber’s business administrator, as LUS Fiber’s interim director, replacing Jeff Stewart and Teles Fremin, respectively. LUS’s consulting engineer has deemed Duhon and Brooks unqualified for the posts.
Once closely held and secretive, the review was center stage at a special joint meeting of the council and the LPUA. Lafayette Public Utilities Authority Chairman Bruce Conque requested the meeting after a pointedly challenging email to Robideaux from Councilman Jay Castille, a frequent critic. “I think everyone agrees that if there was a violation of the law, that would be a very serious allegation,” Castille wrote the mayor on Nov. 13. “I think all anyone wants is a ‘comprehensive, complete and honest analysis.’ But the way you have handled this entire matter makes many doubt your sincerity.”
Castille, who declined to comment for this story, had also called the mayor to task for being untruthful about the Public Service Commission’s role in the ongoing review; Robideaux has said, and repeated Tuesday, that Public Service Commissioner Craig Greene asked for a wider inquiry of the relationships between LUS, LCG and Fiber. Greene’s office denies it played any role. The Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a subcommittee of the council, regulates LUS, and the PSC has limited oversight over LUS and Fiber, ensuring they comply with provisions of the Local Government Fair Competition Act.
Robideaux’s presentation came on the heels of a press conference called abruptly last week by former LUS/LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval, in which Huval defended the power outage monitoring system’s pricing and usefulness.
In his remarks, Robideaux responded to criticism with what may be the most damaging information to date. He released emails and anonymous comments gathered in interviews recorded under attorney-client privilege during the investigation into the power outage payments to LUS Fiber. The complete context of the comments isn’t clear, and Robideaux seemed to attempt to attribute the statements to eight people interviewed, including LUS’s and Fiber’s former interim directors, an LCG accountant, an auditor and two attorneys who work on LUS matters. (You can view his full presentation and comments here.)
“In my opinion, I’ve always thought it was kind of a stretch … as someone who works in the industry, that’s why we are eliminating it, to be honest with you,” said one interviewee. And another: “We need to let it fall off the books because we’re not seeing the justification.”
Huval continues to stand by the POMS decision. “Last week, I explained how we incorporated the beneficial use of technology on the LUS system that resulted in significantly reduced electric outage durations, while still maintaining the lowest rates in the state,” Huval wrote in response to a request for comment. “During the implementation of such technological upgrades, I did not receive any indication by LUS staff or consultants that any of these initiatives were not cost effective. LUS customers are receiving the best service ever because of initiatives such as these.” (View Huval’s presentation here.)
Why this matters: Robideaux presented what may be the most compelling evidence to date that some LUS insiders suspected the power outage monitoring payments were a way to prop the fiber division up at a time it desperately needed cash flow. Should a new PSC audit determine the service was mispriced or unnecessary, the money may have to be paid back to LUS with interest, delivering a financial blow that could jeopardize the future of LUS Fiber. Robideaux is expected to give the LPUA an update by mid-December and complete the review by the end of the year.
The gist: Outgoing officials want to go out with a bang. Tuesday’s council meeting, one of the last of the year, is chockablock with major initiatives. On the table: the LUS inquiry, more pay raises and six new taxing districts, one of which would finance developing a river walk on the Vermilion.
Robideaux opens the books on his LUS inquiry
At a special meeting of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will unpack the findings of his ongoing inquiry into alleged improper payments at LUS Fiber. Robideaux intimated in an email last week that he would unseal interviews with LUS and Fiber staffers conducted by LCG lawyers. LPUA meetings are held at 4:30 p.m inside city hall.
Get caught up, quickly. LUS and LUS Fiber have been under fire for a pair of potential violations of a state law that prohibits government dollars from propping up the municipal telecom. The most recent of the two, $8 million paid over eight years for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by Robideaux in July. In October, Robideaux announced he was removing LUS and Fiber’s interim directors, claiming the swap was made to “facilitate an internal review on behalf of the Public Service Commission,” and connected the review to the power outage monitoring payments. The PSC denies any involvement and has distanced itself from Robideaux’s attempts to link his efforts to its limited oversight. The controversy spurred terse exchanges between Robideaux and Councilman Jay Castille.
$3.7 million in new pay raises up for final adoption
Earlier this month, the council approved $3.8 million in new raises for city police; now it’s got three more raises to consider:
- $2.6 million for Lafayette Fire Department
- $1.1 million for all other LCG employees
- $137,000 for the city marshal’s office
If all of these raises get approved and these increases aren’t offset elsewhere in the budget, the city’s formerly flush general fund will be depleted in very short order. A proposal to eliminate currently vacant positions from the budget, in a bid to free up dollars for the pay raises, is also up for final adoption.
Six new taxing districts proposed, including one for a riverwalk
Robideaux has proposed setting up six new economic development districts that would levy 1% sales and 2% hotel occupancy taxes in each tax increment financing district to pay for infrastructure meant to spur development. The ordinances include cooperative endeavor agreements with various public and private partners. One proposal would create a TIF district to finance the development of a riverwalk promenade along the Vermilion near the old Trappey’s canning plant. The measures are up for introduction and would not be up for final vote until December. Here’s the list:
- Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District
CEA with Downtown Development Authority
- University Gateway Economic Development District
CEA with Townfolk Inc., and Oasis Community Coterie
- Trappey Economic Development District
CEA with Trappey Riverfront Development LLC
- Northway Economic Development District
CEA with Pride Opportunity Development Developers
- Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District
CEA with Holy Rosary Redevelopment
- Acadiana Mall Economic Development District
No partner identified
EDDs are special taxing districts where additional taxes or fees are collected, and that money is then dedicated to projects benefiting those districts.
Girard Park Drive rezoning for new apartments
The rezoning will allow for the construction of a 140-unit apartment and office complex by Lafayette General. The rezoning has already received significant pushback from nearby neighbors who say a development of this size will hurt the character of their neighborhood. The zoning commission voted against recommending the changes.
The gist: Long considered the goose that laid the golden egg, Lafayette Utilities System, along with its sister entity, LUS Fiber, is now mired in political controversy heading into Saturday’s mayoral runoff between Carlee Alm-LaBar and Josh Guillory. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has floated accusations of unlawful transactions between the systems, initiated leadership changes and launched an internal investigation, all of […]