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.

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▸ 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. 

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Bernhard tests the waters

Bernhard Capital Partners appears ready to make its pitch to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority on Oct. 9.

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Deadlines set for redevelopment of old federal courthouse

▸ 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.

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▸ 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.

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Drag Queen Story Time uproar continues to unravel

The gist: The library’s board president resigned under the mayor-president’s scrutiny, social conservatives have filed a petition, fringe national headlines have continued to percolate and we’re not even in September yet. As of this writing, Drag Queen Story Time is still scheduled at the Lafayette Public Library for Oct. 6, but the drama is ongoing.

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Robideaux is not messing around with his library investigation. A key issue in the backlash against the event is the library’s promotion of Drag Queen Story Time in its monthly brochure. The mayor-president said in a statement last week that he wanted to get to the bottom of how the library approves official programming. And he followed through, delivering an aggressive and thorough list of questions to his appointee on the board of control, Joseph Gordon-Wiltz, who also happens to be the assistant council clerk. Gordon-Wiltz tendered his resignation shortly thereafter. Here’s what the mayor-president asked for:

  • A list of requested programs that were denied since January 2016
  • Any and all correspondence of Board members and Library Staff regarding a Drag Queen Storytime program
  • Any and all documentation on files related to Drag Queen Storytime program.
  • Any subject-matter “filters” placed on computers used in the Libraries and who makes that decision.

This is a substantial inquiry. Robideaux clearly wants answers.

Social conservatives are seething. Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes has circulated a petition via its sister organization Citizens for a New Louisiana asking supporters to register their displeasure with library staff and the City-Parish Council. “While the incessant call for one defeated tax election after another has been disheartening, the use of taxpayer funds to promote sexual deviancy to three-year-olds was and still is shocking,” the template language reads. Meanwhile, a fringe West Virginia pastor — d.b.a. Warriors for Christ — has mounted his own campaign against the event, threatening a lawsuit and an on-site protest.

A Drag Queen Story Time event in Mobile, Ala., has generated similar uproar. News of the mayor-president’s push to cancel Lafayette’s event and Gordon-Wiltz’s resignation has popped up in out-of-state headlines.

Lafayette, Ind., trolled us. A misfired tweet from a Drag Queen Story Time supporter landed on the tweetdeck of West Lafayette, Ind., which took the opportunity to promote its culture of inclusion. Here’s how the other Lafayette’s director of communications explained it in the city’s paper of record, The Journal & Courier:

“OUTFest was just held this past week, and there I personally saw Mayor Tony Roswarski and Mayor John Dennis, as well as Rep. Sheila Klinker, speaking about basic human rights, and how the community comes together to tackle these hard issues,” [Communications Director Patty] Payne said. “Every one of those individuals has supported basic human rights since the beginning, and when people come to the city asking for things like this, we try to respond with respect and inclusion.”

Strange bedfellows: Robideaux has not been popular among anti-tax conservatives, particularly LCAT, which fought the vote for the mayor-president’s CREATE initiative and has remained a steadfast critic of his administration. His foray into a strident and explosive controversy bucks the mayor-president’s tendency to avoid flare-ups, and it’s unclear if this will win him many permanent fans. No doubt he has his eye on next year’s re-election campaign. Between Drag Queens and LUS, Robideaux has kicked up a lot of rocks over the past couple of months. Whether they break him or simply bruise him won’t be known till 2019.

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Bernhard/Robideaux talks go back to at least early 2017 and at one time included Fiber

The gist: Emails exchanged between LCG officials and representatives of Bernhard Capital Partners, the private equity firm pursuing management of LUS, show regular sharing of information between the camps beginning in 2017 or earlier, and at one time included an interest in purchasing both the electric division and Fiber. Fiber is not on the table in current discussions; at some point talks turned from a sale to a management agreement.

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Robideaux signed a non-disclosure agreement with Bernhard on April 10, 2017, according to Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard principal. Bernhard and the administration exchanged revisions of the NDA in late January 2017.

Bernhard received a slew of LUS documents throughout 2017 and 2018. Over the summer of 2017, the emails show that now-retired LUS Director Terry Huval sent Bernhard reps copies of Fiber’s depreciation schedules and several months worth of financial statements for LUS. Correspondence shared among Huval, Robideaux and Bernhard reps show a primary interest in the electric system. “From what I recall, the mayor quickly took Fiber off the table, and that was fine with us,” Jenkins said in an interview Wednesday.

Robideaux has described vaguely the genesis of his discussions with Bernhard about LUS, noting in a memo emailed to council members on the LPUA that, after some initial meetings, Robideaux kept Bernhard’s suggestion of a management agreement in his back pocket until March 2018. He also said that LUS “has never been for sale.”

That month LUS Fiber was found to have billed LUS $1.7 million for telecom services that were never used over several years. The discovery triggered an audit by the Public Service Commission, which regulates Fiber.

“With an impending PSC audit, Terry’s planned retirement, and unfunded generation needs, I reopened conversations with Bernhard on a non-binding agreement,” Robideaux says in his memo. However, email records, obtained by The Current via public records request, indicate the conversation was never closed.

In February 2018, for example, Robideaux received a legal opinion from Bernhard that a management agreement would not require a public vote, the emails show.

A value study of LUS matches Bernhard’s interest in both Fiber and the electric division. Robideaux says he commissioned LUS’s engineer of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions, to do a value assessment of LUS in the spring of 2017, spurred by general interest in the idea of sale he heard while running for office. The resulting study, delivered to LCG in July 2017 and later shared with Bernhard, contemplates a franchise agreement for both the electric division and LUS Fiber — creating the appearance that the assessment was done specifically for Bernhard. Robideaux has not responded to a request for comment.

Bernhard is expected to produce an offer in the next two weeks. Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard point man in the play for LUS, says the group will turn over an analysis of LUS in the next two weeks and will likely include its offer. The firm has completed is 90-day due diligence study of LUS, which began after Robideaux signed a non-binding letter of intent in April of this year. The firm is considering private management of all three LUS utility systems — electric, water and wastewater.

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Drag Queen Story Time supporters show in force and rebuke Robideaux

The gist: Dozens crammed into Tuesday’s council meeting to voice support for Drag Queen Story Time, a reading event promoted by the public library that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux apparently sought to cancel in a statement. Robideaux’s statement, also issued Tuesday, came after days of conservative outrage registered with his office and across social media channels.

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▸ Drag Queen Story Time? Programmed by a provisional chapter of a national LGBTQ fraternity at UL, Drag Queen Story Time is itself a national phenomenon and is pretty much what it sounds like: men dressed in drag, reading to children. The Lafayette Public Library regularly schedules story time events. The fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, arranged to host one on Oct. 6 as special guests. The idea is to promote inclusion and tolerance by providing kids an encounter with people who look different. What appears to have triggered social conservatives on the issue is the library’s promotion of Drag Queen Story Time as a recommended event in the library’s monthly brochure.

23 spoke in favor in Drag Queen Story Time. 1 spoke against. There was some expectation that enraged conservatives would pack the event, given the story’s viral distribution on social media and the outrage registered on pages like Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. Louisiana Family Forum, the state’s premier evangelical advocacy group, sent out newsletters calling the event a “clear attempt to advance a hyper-sexual agenda” and asking Forum supporters to thank Robideaux for “taking a stand.” Despite the furor, only one speaker, a pastor who noted links in his remarks to the Louisiana Family Forum, spoke in opposition to Drag Queen Story Time.

For more than two hours, supporters took to the council’s podiums, sharing stories of personal abuse, castigating Robideaux’s statement and exhorting tolerance and inclusion as local virtues. One speaker called for Robideaux to withdraw his statements and apologize. Early remarks drew choruses of applause, which Council Chairman Kevin Naquin quelled, he said, for the sake of moving things along.

“I appreciate this hatred, because it has shown me how amazing Lafayette is,” said Bonnie Barbier, a supporter dressed like a hermit crab. She also apologized if her appearance confused any children into thinking she was actually a hermit crab.

This was a strange hill for Robideaux to die on. Few would accuse Robideaux of taking sides in most controversies, a tendency that’s caused some to question his leadership style. He’s avoided weighing in substantively on some big issues in the last year — tax measures, the push for a Lafayette City Council, for instance — but he waded headlong into the city’s latest culture war flare-up. His remarks are dissonant with his ambitions to put Lafayette on the map as a progressive and forward-thinking community that’s attractive to tech companies. Headlines suggesting the mayor-president shares the concerns  — or fears the wrath — of social conservatives undermine, if not contradict, the message he’s trying to send the world.

Neither the council nor the mayor have direct authority here. They can’t technically cancel Drag Queen Story Time, or any other library program for that matter. But the library’s Board of Control, which has political appointees seated, could pressure library staff to do so. Robideaux’s statement calls for a review of the library’s programming process, which seems to be the limit of his power here. The council could theoretically pass a resolution condemning Drag Queen Story Time and officially requesting its cancellation. We know of no such effort.

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Bernhard adjusts focus, management of all three LUS utilities now in play

Some have raised concern that extracting only LUS’s electric division for private management could destabilize the system’s other utilities: wastewater and water. The three systems have entangled debt and rate structures that are messy and risky to pull apart.

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Should LUS and Fiber split, four top positions would be vacant at LCG

The gist: Resignations and reorganization have combined to open four director level positions for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to fill, including some that have been vacant since the beginning of the year. In the coming months, Robideaux will need to appoint replacement directors for planning, information services and technology and, if his restructuring proposal goes forward, separate directors for LUS and LUS Fiber.

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Top billing: Robideaux faces a generational decision at LUS. As if replacing outgoing Director Terry Huval, who served four administrations as LUS’s top exec over three decades, wasn’t enough, Robideaux has proposed splitting Huval’s job in two in this year’s budget, cleaving off LUS Fiber into its own separate department. Huval announced his retirement in April shortly after the mayor revealed to him privately his intentions to split off Fiber. Huval ultimately resigned early, reportedly in response to public revelations of Robideaux’s consideration of monetizing the electric system.

Taking his time: Robideaux’s proven to be a deliberative executive, taking several months to fill top positions in his administration when vacated. Information services has not had a permanent director since Robideaux took office in 2016; instead, two successive interim directors have overseen the department. Robideaux took a year to replace outgoing Police Chief Jim Craft, a Joey Durel appointee, with current chief Toby Aguillard, who took over in November 2016. Mark Dubroc succeeded interim Public Works Director Tom Carroll three months after Carroll’s March 2017 announcement that he would leave the provisional post within a couple of months. Former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar gave notice of her resignation in May and officially stepped down in June. Her position is currently held by an interim director.

What to watch for: The search to replace Terry Huval, how long it takes and how it interacts with potential private management of the electric division. It’s clear the delay in starting the search was related to Robideaux’s decision to reorganize LUS and Fiber and possibly connected to his talk to privatize the city’s electric company. He’s not going to announce positions that don’t yet exist. Arguably the clock starts upon the council’s approval of the upcoming budget.

Dividing LUS and Fiber is not a new idea. Some argue that Fiber deserves a full-time director to run effectively. And indeed, Robideaux pointed to Fiber’s $1.7 million overcharge of LUS, which triggered an audit, as evidence of the need for separate directors in his remarks to the council. But a challenge here will be attracting talent at lower pay. Robideaux proposes paying the utilities director $150,000 and the Fiber director $115,000. Combined, the two salaries exceed Huval’s salary of $256,000. Meanwhile, Robideaux has called for a transformative review of LUS’s future, saying the community will need to reckon with major changes in the 120-year-old utility. He’ll demand innovative thinking, it seems, but the pay may not attract the talent up for the challenge.

For what it’s worth, comparable utilities director positions in Chattanooga, Tenn., (combined telecommunications and power oversight) and Lincoln, Neb., (power utility only) pull down more than $350,000 in annual payment. Both of those positions, however, oversee larger operating budgets. The current operating revenue for LUS is around $250 million and Fiber around $40 million.

Robideaux has less than two years left in his first term in office. That presents an odd deadline: Any incoming director, particularly one answering a national search, would have to stomach the possibility of a change of administration less than two years into being installed. The longer Robideaux waits, the heavier that factor weighs.

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In meetings with city leaders, Bernhard’s vision for LUS begins to emerge

As part of its plan to take over management of LUS’s electric division, Bernhard Capital Partners is presenting a vision of creating a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette.

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Robideaux details timeline of talks to privatize the electrical division of LUS 

Nearly two weeks since The Current broke the news, Mayor Joel Robideaux presented a detailed timeline of his talks to privatize the electrical division of LUS through a management agreement with a private equity firm based in Baton Rouge. Robideaux had come under fire for leaving council members out of the conversation, most of whom only learned about the deal in media reports.

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Leaving council members in the dark jeopardizes Robideaux’s LUS play

Much of the City-Parish Council, already disillusioned that it was left in the dark during negotiations, appears unified in opposition to LUS’s electrical division changing hands.

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Robideaux administration considering sale of LUS’s electric division Mayor in ongoing discussions with private equity firm to purchase or manage the division

Talks between the Robideaux administration and Bernhard Capital Partners over the potential purchase of Lafayette Utilities System have been ongoing since at least the beginning of the year.

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