Mayor-President Josh Guillory announced late Friday afternoon that 101 LCG employees were notified today that they will be laid off June 5 due to financial straits caused by coronavirus.
Regardless of the merit’s of Mayor-President Josh Guillory small business forgivable loan program, the process he’s used doesn’t lead to good policymaking while ignoring our community’s looming housing crisis.
Guillory proposes using HUD coronavirus relief for small business grant programs, not housing assistance
Housing advocates say the money is better used to help stabilize growing housing insecurity in the region. The proposal will go before the council next week for approval.
The gist: City Council members and the administration will go into executive session Tuesday to discuss the administration’s “legal strategy” for backing away from a lawsuit filed to stop several special taxing districts. The mayor-president and some council members are at odds over the issue. Less controversial decisions will be made on applying for millions in grants and continuing the process of splitting control of boards between the city and parish councils.
Council Preview: Rededicating CREATE, refinancing bonds, re-litigating taxing districts, reorganizing boards and more
The gist: After canceling their April 7 meetings, Lafayette’s city and parish councils are back in session Tuesday with jam-packed agendas that include refinancing hundreds of millions in bonds, reorganizing more than a dozen boards and commissions, rededicating the CREATE millage, and more. They’ll also be trying out a new system for citizens to call in to make comments while city hall remains closed to the public because of coronavirus.
Calling an election to rededicate CREATE tax. If approved, this resolution would put a public vote on the presidential ballot to rededicate the $500,000 property tax for CREATE — a cultural economy initiative passed by the previous administration — to rural fire protection and parish roads and bridges. That would increase funding for fire protection in unincorporated Lafayette by $350,000 and for roads and bridges by $150,000.
$360 million in bond refinancing. The finance department is looking to refinance bonds to take advantage of low interest rates and get ahead of the likelihood that Lafayettes’s bond ratings will fall because of the snowballing recession’s impact on LCG’s tax revenue. Lower bond ratings mean higher interest rates, a cost that would be passed on to taxpayers and LUS ratepayers. The resolutions would allow the administration to approach the state bond commission.
$41 million in new debt to backstop the government. That’s $36 million for the city and $5 million for the parish. While the city and parish may not need to use this new debt, LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups wants the loan in place if either entity’s tax revenues fall so much that they need the money to pay the bills.
The joint councils will introduce ordinances to reorganize 14 boards and commissions. These changes are a result of splitting the consolidated council into two. Part of that process is reorganizing all of the local boards and commissions the councils have authority over to reflect this new structure. Here’s a list of all the boards and commissions on the docket:
- Lafayette Advisory Commission on Crime Prevention
- Downtown Management Committee
- Heymann Performing Arts Center and Frem F. Boustany Convention Center Advisory Commission
- Lafayette Parish Convention and Visitors Commission
- People’s Safety Initiative
- Lafayette Economic Development Authority
- Lafayette Parish Bayou Vermilion District
- Lafayette Parish Library Board of Control
- Lafayette Natural History Museum and Planetarium Commission
- Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission
- Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team
- Lafayette Preservation Commission
- Lafayette City-Parish President’s Awareness Committee for Citizens with Disabilities
- Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board
The joint councils will also look at revising rules to encourage bringing adjudicated properties back into commerce. The first change would remove the prohibition against including rental in property renovation plans. The second change would remove the $500 fee nonprofits have to pay to apply to take over an adjudicated property.
The city council will consider moving money around to pay for the $1.5 million loan to the Bottle Arts Lofts project. Rather than coming out of the city’s general fund, this money would be paid for out of the University Avenue Initiative in the city’s capital fund. This $1.5 million is structured as a 40-year zero interest loan to private developers to help pay for the costs of turning the old Coca-Cola bottling plant on Cameron Street into rent-controlled artist lofts.
Who do city-parish attorneys represent? City Councilman Pat Lewis has asked for a briefing on the legal department’s obligations to the council. The discussion item stems in part from a conflict over the future of the recently passed special taxing districts that are the subject of a lawsuit filed against the city of Lafayette. Last week, the legal department withdrew a motion filed in the case to defend the districts. Mayor-President Josh Guillory opposes the EDDs, which appear to still have strong support on the city council.
At issue is whose interests city-parish attorneys are required to represent. According to Lewis, the question is about more than just these special taxing districts that pit the mayor against the council. Lewis wants to know how future disagreements between the mayor-president and city or parish councils, or between the councils themselves, will move forward when legal obstacles arise. This is a particularly pressing issue as the councils head into what was already likely to be a contentious budget cycle, with the parties working through figuring out who’s legally obligated to pay for what.
If you want to participate in these council meetings, there’s a new stay-at-home protocol. If you don’t want to speak but do want to submit your support for or opposition to an agenda item, email email@example.com. In that email, identify which council meeting agenda (city or parish), which agenda item number, your name, and your position for or against. If you do want to speak, call 337-291-8428 between 2 p.m. tomorrow and the time that the agenda item you want to comment on is introduced. Leave a voicemail with your name, call back number, and the agenda item you want to comment on and they’ll call you back once the agenda item is read. The five-minute limit on comments will still apply.
The gist: New clarity to state guidelines that had shuttered hundreds of Lafayette businesses for weeks has already sprung open area shops, in effect beginning the first local thaw on commerce. But officials remain stark in their warnings to heed state orders to stay home and stay safe, sending a mixed message about the state of urgency.
“We’re still seeing very sick individuals. We’re seeing hospitals past their normal capacity,” said Dr. Tina Stefanski, the state public health director for the Acadiana region, in an interview with The Current. “It’s really important that we realize we should follow the stay-at-home order and stay home.”
One more death, bringing the total 17, and nine new confirmed cases were reported in Lafayette Parish by the health department on Friday. Current regional models released by the Louisiana Department of Health show a steady increase in new infections over the next few months, even if shelter-in-place orders remain in effect.
The new Shop Safe policy, announced by Mayor-President Josh Guillory Thursday, clarifies state guidelines that have been in place for weeks but sends a somewhat mixed message. On the one hand, local officials say Shop Safe sends a clearer signal to businesses confused about their status over the last month. Issued March 22, with subsequent clarifications, the governor’s stay-home order defines “essential” businesses, prohibits others from operating but leaves ample gray area, which Shop Safe addresses. Guillory himself urged citizens to stay home except when necessary, reiterating the threat posed by coronavirus.
On the other hand, the updated guidance is clearly intended to blunt the economic impact of the virus by clearing a more obvious path for businesses to operate. In that sense, the policy has the net effect of encouraging commerce despite the continued presence of a virulent disease. It’s a risk-benefit calculation, administration officials say.
“We need to be able to have some benefit. We’ve got to be able to open up some of these businesses to get the economy rolling again and do so safely,” Dr. Doug Clement, the first-ever parish medical director (an unpaid advisory position in the mayor-president’s office), said at Thursday’s briefing. Clement echoed the mayor-president’s sentiment that Shop Safe represents a manageable risk. “We need to start bringing our lives back online.”
To what extent Shop Safe will yield more commerce is unclear. “I believe this sets the guidance that business knows it needs to live up to,” says LEDA President Gregg Gothreaux. “A lot of people will open up now, if they weren’t certain they were allowed to.”
Gothreaux’s right about businesses re-opening. But will customers show up? Responses on social media have been mixed, with many deeply concerned the policy might spread the infection and others thrilled to see commerce back in action. There was ample evidence Friday morning that some small retailers had been awaiting clearance to re-open. For example, both the Bertrand Drive and Kaliste Saloom locations of the four-decades-old Bevo’s, a women’s clothing and accessories store, reopened today, as did gift shop Caroline & Company and women’s clothing store Herringstone’s.
LDH weighed in only generally on the policy, which is in some ways more restrictive than what the governor’s order requires of businesses in the “grey area” category, with one exception: The governor’s order had previously been interpreted to cap gatherings at 10 people while Shop Safe imposes a 25% cap limit based on fire code occupancy. Larger facilities, by that measure, could host many more than 10 people at a time. Local officials insist this isn’t a change to the policy itself, despite the effect.
On Thursday, Guillory responded to questions about LDH’s approval of the Shop Safe policy saying the local guidelines fit the letter and spirit of the state’s stay-home order, but he did not address whether and to what extent the state health department had a hand in crafting the policy itself.
“I spoke with the mayor-president generally about policy and reiterated that we were under a stay-at-home order,” Stefanksi says of her role, as a regional official with LDH. She defers questions of policy to the governor’s order. In an email forwarded to the press Friday morning, a special counsel to Gov. John Bel Edwards affirmed that LCG’s legal interpretation of the stay-home order is consistent with the March stay-home directive.
It’s been a confusing message to untangle: How do you “stay at home” and stay open? If the legal interpretation announced Thursday is consistent with the stay-home order, why for weeks was law enforcement shutting down businesses like those that re-opened today?
“We could have done this before. Lesson learned,” Chief Communications Officer Jamie Angelle said, acknowledging that per the “ad hoc” application of the governor’s order some businesses that may have otherwise been open for the last month had been ordered to close with light-touch enforcement. Angelle chalked the belated clarity up to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the blunt and forceful reaction from state government. “We have been trying to understand many new things,” Angelle said.
The governor may yet extend his order beyond April 30. Edwards told reporters Friday that Louisiana is not yet at Phase 1 of the federal reopening guidelines released this week. New Orleans, the area hardest hit in the state, opted to keep local stay-home policies in place until May 16. Across the board, the LDH models released this week show dramatic spikes in new infections by early May if the stay-home order is relaxed or lifted.
Lafayette, in a sense, is charting a legal path for other cities. With the governor’s approval, the interpretation could be applied elsewhere. Federal guidelines by and large leave the pace of reopening to state governments but recommend a phased approach. Still, Stefanski and other public officials are urging caution, displaying obvious concern that the effect of the last month of isolation could be undone in a bid to put Louisiana back to work.
“A great concern of mine is if people don’t follow [the governor’s] directives, we’ll see a further spread,” she says.
Additional reporting by Leslie Turk
The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory rolled out a policy to re-open businesses he says fall in the “gray area” of the governor’s stay-home order that shut down commerce in the state on March 23 — i.e. businesses that are neither “essential” nor prohibited. Questions about who can stay open have persisted since the governor shut the state down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“This order is legal; it’s within the guidance of the governor,” Guillory said, after explaining enforcement measures and punishment for violators.
Calling it his “safe shop policy,” Guillory said the change is needed to address the deluge of unemployment claims filed in recent weeks. Almost 19,000 initial claims are in the pipeline for Lafayette Parish, with more than 4,000 during the week of April 5-11 alone. “This many unemployment claims in this short of a period is by far unprecedented,” he said.
Louisiana’s stay-home order is set to expire April 30, but the governor has yet to announce an extension. New Orleans, meanwhile, will keep its lockdown going until at least May 16.
Some public health officials have warned against thawing restrictions until widespread testing is available. Testing supplies are growing in Lafayette Parish and nationally, but not to the extent that local testing criteria have been substantially relaxed. High-risk cases still get priority, the mayor-president said at a Wednesday press conference, reinforcing in his remarks the need to keep Lafayette’s 311 pre-screening line open even after the Cajundome screening site was shut down this week.
“The hospitals here have the ability to absorb [the risk],” said Dr. Doug Clement, an emergency care physician and LCG’s medical director, when asked today whether it is wise to pull back restrictions ahead of more widely available testing. Dr. Tina Stefanski, the state public health director for the Acadiana region, did not attend the press conference.
The new policy applies to around 60 percent of businesses in Lafayette Parish, including retailers like furniture and jewelry stores, and those selling durable goods, officials said. To reopen under the order, which goes into effect at midnight Thursday, all employees must wear face masks and be symptom-free, and customers must maintain six feet of space when shopping and waiting in checkout lines. There is a maximum of 25 percent occupancy, as defined by fire and building codes, and no group congregating will be allowed. Beginning Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., business owners needing clarification on the safe shop policy can call 311 and choose option 2 to speak with someone from the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.
Violators risk having their power shut off, the mayor said, and face fines of $500 per violation and/or up to six months in the parish jail. Spotting noncompliance will rely largely on reports from private citizens.
Additional reporting by Christiaan Mader
The gist: Retail sales are plummeting nationwide, while plunged oil prices remain bottomed out. That means local governments face the possibility of massive deficits. Citing “unprecedented fiscal challenges,” Lafayette’s mayor-president is setting expectations for deep cuts.
The gist: Charities that help Acadiana’s financially vulnerable see mounting unemployment claims and worry about a crash of housing instability coming. Programs typically strained in normal circumstances are poised to be slammed from two sides, as job losses surge people into unprecedented vulnerability and contributions dry up.
Share the Light has already run out of money for the month. Operated by Catholic Charities of Acadiana, the program takes small donations from LUS customers and distributes them to people in dire financial circumstances. It’s not atypical for Share the Light to exhaust its monthly giving, Catholic Charities’ Kim Boudreaux said in an interview early Friday, but she warned the need will skyrocket as the bottom drops out for many families for the first time. Last year, Share the Light generated about $37,000 for Lafayette residents in need.
“If we had a million dollars it wouldn’t be enough in this situation,” Boudreaux said. Catholic Charities runs a variety of similar programs, including Slemco’s Lights On, and distributes alms from the Diocese of Lafayette. Those and other programs administered by Catholic Charities still have money available for distribution with some flexibility. But she expects the need to balloon as unemployment rises.
Acadiana’s weekly unemployment claims topped 7,000 as coronavirus hit in mid-March. Earlier weekly claims hovered just about 1,000 at the beginning of March, according to data shared at a press briefing by LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle. More than 6.6 million have been filed nationwide, doubling last week’s claims, the highest ever on record.
“We focus on households that have an unexpected loss or expense in their household,” Boudreaux says. “We’ve always made our decisions based on somebody’s circumstances.” Now, it appears many, many more people will fit those criteria, she says.
Charities have already had to adapt to the unique challenges of a pandemic. Catholic Charities has lost availability in its homeless shelters to make space for social distancing. Food banks have had to devise strategies to store and distribute food safely without spreading the virus. Schools were pressed into duty as crisis-food centers until volunteers and workers became worried about their own health.
The signal from the nonprofit sector is that they can’t handle what’s next without major help, and that likely includes government. Catholic Charities normally selects those it helps based on acute and sudden need, given there are already too many people in or near poverty that can be helped by the program. Boudreaux notes that some federal funding coming in from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief package signed into law last week, could funnel through state and local channels to add stability to Acadiana’s housing needs. LCG received $850,000 in block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the CARES Act. That may be able to be used for rental assistance, according to Leigh Rachal of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, but it’s unclear whether it could extend to other bills like utilities.
“There’s no concern,” Mayor-President Josh Guillory snapped when asked how his office was preparing for the wave of instability at a press briefing Friday. Asked if he could clarify, he said “no.”
Local government has a lot to lose if utility bills start to fall through. LUS paid roughly $23 million in in-lieu-tax payments in 2019, consistent with historical trends, to support the city of Lafayette’s general fund. That a chunk of revenues could vanish is an area of real concern for many smaller municipalities. It’s what complicated Abbeville’s brief decision to continue disconnects altogether. That city relies heavily on its utility revenues But the scale of LUS leaves it able to absorb losses to a point. In the meantime, LUS has waived disconnection and late fees for 60 days and has not seen an appreciable decline in revenue.
Boudreaux is concerned Share the Light could see substantial declines in its donations. Normally, people elect to add a dollar or more to their bills to pay into the program. It’s not uncommon for Catholic Charities to help its clientele pay the minimum on utility bills as high as $1,200, as unpaid balances snowball, month after month. LUS does work out payment plans on an individual basis, Boudreaux says, which helps. But poverty may reach people who have never experienced such hardship before. LCG has urged customers to pay what they can to avoid a lump bill when compassion measures go away, and in the meantime directed those in need to take advantage of Share the Light, an announcement broadcast on Tuesday. Calls for help had fallen silent at Catholic Charities until LCG directed those in need to take advantage of the program. The announcement took Catholic Charities off guard.
“Our phone started ringing until late last night,” Boudreaux says, adding that it hasn’t stopped.
The gist: The COVID-19 pandemic spits out dizzying amounts of data, and it’s hard to get a grip on exactly what it points to. Confirmed cases, we’re told, remain an unreliable datapoint while public health experts try to forecast a peak. We’re looking too far in the past to know what it’s coming.
The gist: Somber and prayerful, Mayor-President Josh Guillory lowered his head and reported Lafayette’s first COVID-19 death today. The victim’s age and identity were not revealed. More fatalities will be announced shortly, once families are notified, he said, setting grave expectations for the coming days. Deaths in Acadia Parish and St. Martin Parish were also confirmed today by the Louisiana Department of Health.
“This is a sobering reminder of how serious this situation is,” Guillory said in a briefing with reporters. He looked abroad to Italy and down the road to New Orleans — where hospitals have been overwhelmed with floods of new cases — to hint at what could happen if many Lafayette residents remain personally complacent in their efforts to stymie the disease. The administration is receiving a high volume of complaints about neighbors flouting government urgings and societal pleas to stay home and take the pandemic seriously. Guillory and his spokesman, Communications Director Jamie Angelle, bemoaned their powerlessness to coerce the public into social distance. They would force people to stay apart if they could, Angelle said, but they can’t. (Sheriff Mark Garber said earlier this week that residents should call 911 to report blatant disregard for the governor’s stay-home order.)
Lafayette’s confirmed infections spiked today to 44. That’s a hefty increase over yesterday’s tally but remains an unreliable indicator of the scale of the local spread of COVID-19. Officials widely believe the number of actual cases far outstrips the number of detected infections, a pattern seen universally in areas affected by the disease. Hundreds of tests from the Cajundome screening site alone are still outstanding or unreported, and the results of those tests — sent to a variety of different commercial labs — can take more than 10 days to return. There are even more samples sent out of clinics and doctors’ offices, a handful at a time, that aren’t counted in the local tally. Lafayette’s testing operations lag roughly a week behind New Orleans, which surged to a pandemic total of well over 1,000 confirmed cases in the last few days alone. More than 20,000 tests have been completed statewide to date, the vast majority in commercial labs.
St. Martin Parish saw three deaths today, among them a man in his early 40s. Acadia reported one. Fatalities skew higher among patients over the age of 70. Of the state’s 119 reported deaths, 69 were in that age group.
Guillory’s administration is trying to get ahead of the economic impact. Unemployment claims are astronomical, mirroring the unprecedented millions of claims filed nationally. He announced business information resources going online next week. But locally, leaders are turning to the $2.2 trillion rescue package signed by the president today for relief. A webinar hosted by a coalition of regional economic agencies and chambers of commerce unpacked the details of the massive CARES Act, which passed out of the House of Representatives today and zipped to President Donald Trump’s desk for a signature.
LCG has been proactive, tactically. Last week, LCG spearheaded a 311-based pre-screening process that has largely worked in streamlining the use of a still-thin supply of tests available to metro Lafayette. Guillory offered up hope that rapid tests were on the way but pointed to a long timeline, still a week or more away from arrival. On Friday, Guillory relayed discussions about transitioning seniors who have recovered from the virus out of hospital care among the administration, Lafayette’s two hospital systems and Lafayette-based LHC Group, one of the nation’s largest home-health providers. New Orleans has taken dramatic steps in the face of a near-nightmare, moving to use its convention center for hospital overflow.
LCG has not spelled out its plan to get ahead of a possible public health crisis. Public statements since the crisis have noted ongoing conversations with state officials, hospital leadership and the nonprofit community but without many specifics; the administration has instead appealed to the fluidity of the situation in responding to questions about those plans.
Hospital capacity has not yet been maxed here. So far, Lafayette’s hospitals have been able to manage the stream of patients, taking steps to conserve their supply of protective gear and other equipment. We don’t know how many ventilators the region has, as hospital representatives won’t disclose that information; Gov. John Bel Edwards has requested thousands from the federal government. Hospital leadership, in conjunction with the regional public health office, are preparing a regional surge plan to sort out how they could coordinate a response in the event of an avalanche of new cases. While most cases of COVID-19 aren’t fatal, the strain on hospital resources can lead to more deaths. Social distancing and other measures are efforts to ensure healthcare resources aren’t exhausted by a sudden crush of infections.
The gist: The Cajundome will be a drive-thru SCREENING (not testing) site for coronavirus beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Communications Director Jamie Angelle stressed at Tuesday’s press conference.