The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.
The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will not seek re-election, he announced in a press conference Friday morning. Over the past year, his administration has battled a string of controversies, leading some political observers to view him as a weakened incumbent.
It’s not clear what spurred the decision. He did not take questions from the press, hurrying out of his conference room at city hall after reading from a prepared statement. Robideaux has said casually in public appearances for months that he intended to run, treating the prospect as a given. Since the beginning of the year, he’s ramped up his social media presence, using more routine posts to raise his visibility in a campaign year. The Advocate reported in February that he had little money raised for a run, prompting questions about his vulnerability. Robideaux rebutted that story on his Facebook page.
“Lafayette is in the best financial position it’s ever been,” because of his administration’s fiscal policies, he said at the conference, reading solemnly from typed remarks. He cited the pending sale of the old federal courthouse and recent economic gains, along with progress at the parish no-kill animal shelter and revitalizing the University Avenue corridor — both campaign promises — as key accomplishments. “Our future is very exciting. I have done what I was elected to do.”
Robideaux had drawn a challenger for the upcoming race, a somewhat unusual occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette. Carlee Alm-LaBar, who served as planning director under Robideaux, announced a bid last month. Rumors of other candidates yet to enter are swirling around political circles, but no others have materialized.
Disclosure: Alm-LaBar provided some seed money The Current in 2018.
The mayor-president has faced controversies, some unresolved, that have accumulated over the past 18 months. Most recently, federal authorities have begun investigating accusations of impropriety surrounding Marcus Bruno, a mayoral aide, linked to a federally backed loan Bruno received through a nonprofit that provides financing to small businesses. Last year, Robideaux faced public uproar for courting a contract to privatize management of LUS, a pursuit that transpired out of public view for almost two years. The affair began a marked deterioration in his relationship with the City-Parish Council; the mistrust appears to have only worsened in recent months.
An hour earlier, Robideaux spoke with interested developers on site at the Buchanan Garage Downtown. He appeared very much engaged in the redevelopment project, taking some pointed questions from developer Tim Supple and promoting the site as an opportunity to leverage Downtown development to reap economic benefit for the parish as a whole.
What to watch for: Who steps into the race and how Robideaux finishes out his only term. It’s not likely that Alm-LaBar will run unopposed. Robideaux’s appearance at the Buchanan Garage arguably indicates he intends to shepherd through initiatives he cares about.
The gist: The team redeveloping Downtown’s old federal courthouse requested an extension on the 60-day due diligence period back in February and have yet to file for a building permit. Nevertheless, they maintain the project is on schedule to start construction in June.
Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux successfully navigated a sale of the long-vacant building through the council to a private development team for $1.4 million, a feat that had eluded proponents for more than a decade. As contracted, the project would place 68 housing units and 25,000 square feet of new commercial space on a prominent street corner. It represents an important domino in toppling the district’s residential development quagmire. Skepticism has clouded the project since the beginning, strung along by a lack of new information.
"Everything is moving along smoothly,” Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats told the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, noting the purchase of the old federal courthouse and adjoining properties will close in May. Oats provided the status update at Councilman Jay Castille’s request, and has served as the project’s default spokesman since last year. Castille has questioned the aggressive timeline set by the administration and the experience of the Place de Lafayette project’s team led by financier E.J. Krampe III and contractor Jim Poche.
Construction activity must begin by July 1 or the developers will face a $25,000 monthly fine, according to the contract. The inspection extension does not move the start date or the substantial completion date of December 31, 2020, which still backstop the project timeline.
The timeline is doable but leaves little room for error. For comparison, Developer Stephen Ortego tells me permitting on his Vermilion Lofts mixed use development Downtown took six months to complete. Even quick turnarounds on permits are measured in weeks or often months. “It moves as fast as you push it,” he says. Ortego was part of a team that pitched unsuccessfully for the old federal courthouse.
Variances could be the real hurdle. Going through the Board of Zoning Adjustment can be a lengthy process, especially if there’s any back and forth on variances requested. Ortego says the process can take three months, but that developers can pursue a building permit simultaneously.
"I'm assuming from the drawings they will have to go BOZA," Ortego says, referring to the rendering posted during the Robideaux Report last month. As depicted, for instance, it appears some newly constructed buildings on the site could be set too far back from the sidewalk under Downtown's development codes, he says, requiring a variance. It's unclear if the drawing represents a final concept. Calls to Krampe, Poche and project architect Dyke Nelson were not returned.
What’s your definition of commencement? According to their contract with LCG, the developers at minimum would need to put up construction fencing with contractor signage, begin interior demolition and roll trailers and other equipment on site. It’s possible that work could be accomplished without a building permit issued, I’m told by sources with development experience. Whether it would pass a skeptical council’s smell test is another question.
Why this matters: The old federal courthouse is a big deal for Downtowners and the mayor-president, who has held the project up as a signature win for his administration. Should something go sideways, it could let air out of recent Downtown enthusiasm and devalue an important accomplishment for the mayor-president’s re-election bid.
The gist: The City-Parish Council voted Tuesday night to call an election this fall to redirect $10 million of the library’s $26 million fund balance to unidentified infrastructure and parks and rec projects.
That’s less than originally proposed — and with an allocation for parks. An amendment offered by Councilman Jay Castille moved $2 million to parks and $8 million to drainage. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s original proposal, floated back in January, was $18 million for roads, bridges and drainage only. Robideaux argued then that such a large redirection would still leave the library with more than enough money to continue operations, a position the administration maintained in council discussion. They mayor’s argument is based on projections that the library’s property tax revenue will grow by more than 100% over the next 11 years, despite that it grew by only about 1% the last two years. Voters will weigh in on the October ballot.
The council voted 6-2 in favor of this amended resolution. Voting no were William Theriot and Jared Bellard, two of the original resolution’s co-authors.
“Robideaux’s proposal was done without library input, so how could he know what we need?” Andrew Duhon, the library’s vice chair, asked the council. He argued that the original proposal didn’t account for potential lower projections for property tax revenue growth, noting that property tax revenue flatlined in the 1980s.
Opponents of the amended proposal say including parks and rec could kill it at the ballot box. Theriot and Bellard made the case that parishwide voters are more worried about flooding than parks and recreation. “Why would we want to invest money in other things if people can’t protect their homes?” Theriot asked.
Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux is stumping for a library east of I-49. He supported lowering the amount of money transferred to pay for it. No library exists east of the Evangeline Thruway, he said, lamenting that kids from those neighborhoods, low income areas with poor rates of literacy, need to bike across the highway to get to a library. “We want a library like everybody else,” he said.
Duhon believes the library could pay for a new library on the Northside, even if some of its fund balance is shifted, and that Boudreaux makes a compelling case for it. But it’s not clear the library can afford to staff and operate a new facility. The library is projected to collect about $2 million less in tax revenue than it costs to operate the system’s existing facilities next year. To maintain current operations it’s going to have to dip into its fund balance. If property tax revenue flatlines or declines, it won’t be long before it will be forced to cut its existing budget by 20% or more. In other words, there’s money to build a library but there may not be money to staff it. The library board has opted not to recommend “rolling forward” — collecting at its highest possible rate — one of its remaining two property taxes, a decision that could reduce projected income by as much as $800,000 annually.
We have to pass the transfer to know how the money’s going to be spent. The administration has not detailed which projects the redirected dollars would go to. Also unknown is the mix of drainage, roads and bridge improvements. Same goes for the parks and rec allocation.
$10 million may sound like a lot of money, but it’s dwarfed by project needs. Public Works reports a backlog of $97 million in road projects alone on top of tens of millions of dollars in drainage maintenance work. A comprehensive overhaul of the drainage system, which some believe is the only real solution, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
One big takeaway: The council doesn’t seem to agree on the same set of facts. At no point during last night’s discussion did it seem like anyone had the same understanding of the library’s financial situation, or the potential long-term impact of transferring some of its surplus for other needs.
The gist: The debate over if and how to rededicate the library’s $26 million fund balance will heat back up at tonight’s council meeting.
Get caught up, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposed rededicating $18 million to roads, bridges and drainage back in January, justifying the move, in part, by suggesting the library had been collecting a secret tax — the so-called ghost millage. Spooked and confused by the ghost millage revelations, council members deferred the proposal until they could have a public discussion about these allegations. The resolution is back on the agenda to call for a public vote on May 4.
It’s too late to call a May 4 election. At a minimum, that part of the resolution will need to change. According to council chair Jared Bellard, a co-author of the resolution, LCG’s legal counsel is drafting language to make that modification, and he still hopes to pass a resolution Tuesday calling for an election.
We haven’t had any public discussion on this issue. Technically, the council did have a public discussion of the library’s financial situation in March, but it fell short of the robust conversation promised back in January. The item fell on a packed agenda, appearing alongside the controversy around mayoral aide Marcus Bruno and debate about seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the charter errors. Besides a few minutes of remarks from the library’s chair, Nora Stelly, and a member of the public, Lydia Romero, the issue got little air time. No member of the council added anything or asked any questions.
Meanwhile, the library’s board is meeting April 15. Amid all this uncertainty, the library board is trying to navigate its normal budgeting process. At this meeting, the board will be deciding on the library’s capital requirements moving forward. Part of that discussion will be figuring out just how much rededication of the fund balance library officials would support for other needs in the parish.
No one’s talking to each other. “I haven’t heard from the library at all,” Bellard tells me, adding he was unaware that the library was meeting to have this discussion next week. At the same time, Andrew Duhon, vice chair of the library’s board, says that none of the Robideaux resolution’s co-authors (Bellard, William Theriot, and Kevin Naquin) have approached the library board to better understand the institution’s finances. Duhon confirms that Robideaux sat down with the library board about his proposed resolution but not until after announcing his plan publicly.
Councilman Bruce Conque is working on a compromise proposal. When Robideaux’s proposal first came up, Conque suggested a $10 million rededication as a compromise, an idea that got informal support from library board members. That alternative option is still being worked on.
Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux wants to see a new library built on the Northside. He’s giving a press conference at 3 p.m. today in the large conference room at City Hall where he’ll be speaking about the need to build a new library in his district to make library services more accessible to his constituents, which include some of Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods. But if $18 million is taken from the library’s fund balance, it’s unlikely it would be able to build another library any time soon.
What to watch for: the fate of the library’s remaining millages. Yet another vote on the library’s finances looms on the horizon. Library officials have to renew another of their now two remaining millages by 2022. If the renewal fails, library revenue will drop by more than half — including the failed renewal in 2018 — from $13.9 million to around $6.5 million. If that were to happen, expect to see our libraries open fewer hours while offering less service.
The gist: The City-Parish Council unanimously supported a resolution Tuesday by councilmen Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux asking that the body be kept abreast of federal and state investigations into a suspect 2016 loan to one of the Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s assistants. But it’s unlikely the council will be hearing anything any time soon.
The gist: Downtown and UL are only a mile away from each other but worlds apart. LCG has been testing a transit route to connect them and is now looking for dollars to buy vehicles to run it.
All about them millennials. The theory behind the loop is that Downtown needs youth to thrive, and UL’s got youth to give. At one time, we called youth “millennials.” I guess at this point it should be Generation Z, right? I’m a millennial, technically, and I’m 34. Anyway, here’s the m-p:
“In order for us to ultimately have a thriving Downtown environment, we need a lot of things to happen,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux told me back in 2017, when the idea first materialized publicly. “A residential component. We need all of those things. But you also want the millennial connection to Downtown that doesn’t currently exist, except very late at night on the weekends. This is an easy first step to the connection between the millennials and the Downtown environment.”
Buses already in the Lafayette Transit System fleet have been used in a test route. Planning Director Danielle Breaux says a city bus isn’t quite the ideal fit, suggesting a shuttle is probably the right size for the ridership and route of narrow urban streets. Robideaux said in 2017 that an electric vehicle was a possibility, arguing something small and innovative may appeal to student riders. The "proof of concept" provided by the LTS route, Breaux says, allows LCG to avoid spending money on a more extensive study and direct the dollars to buying vehicles.
“Pilot programs in transportation such as this one not only help to take unnecessary car trips off of the road, but also improve connectivity, transportation options, and lower cost for citizens, students and visitors to better access jobs, services, and education,” Breaux tells me in an email.
Bus transfer. Robideaux is pursuing dormant transportation dollars to buy whatever vehicle(s) get used. The administration put in a request to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the agency in charge of federal transportation dollars in the Acadiana region, to move just under $380,000 from funds originally set aside to pay for a roundabout and a study on West Congress Street. The budget and scope of the project are unclear. Breaux says LCG will have more info on the project available in mid-April, when the transfer applications are turned into the MPO.
What to watch for: Whether the transfer request gets OK’d when the MPO votes in May and July. Robideaux took some heat for other MPO transfer requests on the slate, most pointedly from Downtown representatives and Councilman Bruce Conque on a move to zero out a $6.8 million streetscape project in Downtown to pay for improvements on the University Avenue corridor, a priority project for the mayor-president. Robideaux and four council members, including Conque, have committee seats on the MPO, along with officials from other parishes in the MPO's footprint.
The gist: Last Friday, the Fix the Charter head and LCG vet officially launched a challenge to her former boss.
It’s been three years since he’s taken office, and in that time Lafayette has had tough conversations. Robideaux’s just been absent from all of them.
The gist: Even though the council won’t do it, the conventional wisdom is someone will. Or was it that someone’s going to sue? Oh, it’s both.
Get caught up, quickly. LCG attorneys authored a dense legal opinion that an ordinance was the right way to fix errors in the legal descriptions — words describing maps, literally — for the new city council district created by the charter amendments passed last year. “On this one I’m pretty confidant,” City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott said. Some think a second opinion from Attorney General Jeff Landry is needed. In a tense 5-4 vote, the council decided not to ask for one.
“I haven’t decided,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux responded last night, when asked point blank by Councilman Jay Castille whether he would ask for one should the council not. Well, the council didn’t. And the m-p still hasn’t decided, according to LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter. (Once he decides, I’m sure I’ll be the first to know.)
The local legal opinion itself suggests an AG opinion is likely. The reasoning is that plenty of officials have the power to do it, so someone is likely to seek one out. Here are the guidelines for who can seek an AG opinion. So could various state and parish officials. Everyone’s got an opinion. And many have the opinion that we need more opinions.
Why should we?
An earnest reason: It would settle the matter, i.e., it can’t hurt to have a second pair of eyes.
A cynical reason: The AG could contradict the local attorneys and cause more upheaval.
Why shouldn’t we?
An earnest reason: This is a local matter, and the local attorneys think an ordinance is just dandy.
A cynical reason: The AG could contradict the local attorneys and cause more upheaval.
Does it matter? Yes and no. Yes because an AG opinion could settle the issue or stir up chaos. No because the council looks likely to go with an ordinance anyhow.
Everyone’s resigned that a lawsuit is coming. On what grounds, exactly, isn’t clear. Some suggested the council violated federal law by not getting the new districts precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. But the DOJ removed Louisiana from preclearance requirements in 2013. Once again, that’s really only conventional wisdom. Clearly, the bad blood about the council split isn’t going away just yet.
The gist: Council members have succumbed to authoring resolutions to get answers from the mayor-president. Trust is breaking down potentially beyond repair in an election year.
Tuesday’s agenda was chock full of beef. Tension simmered under hours of council discussion about embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno, moving money out of Downtown, raising police salaries through legislation and seeking an AG opinion on the charter errors. The Bruno, money transfer and police matters were tabled or withdrawn. The council voted no on seeking an AG opinion.
“All these things that are coming to a head were caused by the mayor-president,” Councilman Jay Castille told me of the heavy agenda ahead of the meeting.
Can you cc us on that email? A central complaint is that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux leaves the council out of major policy decisions.
Castille backed off of pressing a council investigation into embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno after being coaxed by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux to await the outcome of a Louisiana Board of Ethics investigation and a parallel probe by HUD’s office of inspector general.
Bruce Conque withdrew a resolution chastising Robideaux and delaying his request to transfer $10 million in dormant federal transportation dollars to new projects, a process Conque complained the council was cut out of. “I’m not questioning your recommendation,” Conque said. “I’m asking that we be part of the process.”
The complaints echo last year’s blow-up over Robideaux’s closed door efforts to privatize management of LUS, which yielded similar public overtures to tap the council into the administration’s decision making. “The council is always the last one to find out everything before it hits the fan,” Castille grumbled Tuesday night.
Robideaux went on the offensive to defend himself. In a letter sent out Monday, Robideaux turned the blame on Conque, a voting committee member on the MPO, for not doing his duty to inform his fellow officials.
“To say that you’re totally excluded from the process is what I took exception to,” Robideaux said at the council, arguing his request to move monies from a Downtown streetscape and I-49 corridor project were driven by professional guidance. “I don’t want to politicize it. I want it to go where the money should go.”
Council members don’t trust each other either. Council members Jared Bellard, William Theriot and Pat Lewis feel deceived and excluded by the close-knit planning of the charter amendments by Conque, Castille, Boudreaux and Kevin Naquin. How the maps were drawn remains a wound, now salted by the battle over how to fix errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts. Castille called Bellard’s resolution to request an attorney general’s opinion on the issue a “delay tactic,” an attack Bellard rebuked.
“This could be a serious issue, this could be non-issue,” Bellard said. “[An attorney general’s opinion] can still happen while your ordinances [to fix the errors] go forward. And we’ll await an opinion.”
Why this matters. Major policy decisions remain, and elections could ratchet up tension. Unless litigation derails it, LCG needs to transition to a split-council form of government by 2020, a process that’s been on hold since late last year. Robideaux needs to appoint new directors for LUS and LUS Fiber, and he may yet announce bigger initiatives, something of a tradition for him, at the Robideaux Report Thursday night. Dysfunction could make a lame duck year even lamer.