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Police pay increase wins council support but exposes city’s looming budget problems

The gist: The City-Parish Council voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward a $3.8 million police union backed pay plan, which would allocate the money from the city’s general fund if passed at final adoption next month. The vote and the sprawling discussion around it exposed increasing pressure on the city’s finances. 

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Get caught up, quickly: Police officers trained by the Lafayette Police Department are leaving for higher paying jobs, according to Chief Toby Aguillard, who characterized the departures as a crisis in remarks to the council. LPD lost 15 officers last year and 18 so far this year, he said. Meanwhile, the city side of Lafayette Consolidated Government is already slated to eat up $11 million of a $50 million general fund balance just to pay for regular operating expenses next year. Drawing $3.8 million in recurring expenses would deplete the general fund more quickly.  

If the council approves this pay raise, and nothing else changes, the city general fund will run out of money by 2024. LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups shared a pro forma to show what will happen to the city’s general fund balance:


18-1919-2020-2121-2222-2323-24
Ending Fund Balance$45M$30M$21M$12.5M$5M-$1.4M

The city general fund will also break LCG’s fiscal policy of maintaining at least a 20% operating reserve by 2021. That means LCG will have less capacity to respond to emergencies and as a result will have to pay more to borrow money since lenders will see LCG as a riskier investment. 

These numbers were based on a best-case scenario. Toups assumed 2% per year growth revenue, which hasn’t happened in years, and effectively no growth in expenses, which isn’t likely given the many funding needs throughout LCG.

Starting pay for a city of Lafayette police officer is $34,600. Starting pay for any other city in the parish is or will soon be about $40,000, according to Aguillard. Starting pay in McKinney, Texas, where several LPD officers are said to be transferring, is $72,000. An LPD officer with 10 years of experience makes $62,000. The city of Lafayette’s police department just isn’t price competitive and as a result is at risk of continuing to lose talented officers.

The fire department is working on a new pay plan. Fire Chief Robert Benoit spoke in favor of the new pay plan for police, and expressed his hope that LPD and the council would support the fire department as well when it introduces its own proposal in the coming months. 

Increasing pay for firefighters will also cost millions of dollars per year. Council member Kevin Naquin tried unsuccessfully to amend the police’s plan to include $3 million for the fire department. 

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux wants to increase all LCG employee salaries 5%. Last year, the council passed a 2% pay raise for employees, overriding a mayor-president’s veto. And this spring, the council approved a 2% cost-of-living increase for all LCG employees, including police if LCG’s property and sales tax revenues increase by 2% or more. If Boudreaux’s new 5% proposal passes, it would mean an increase of another few million dollars in additional annual expenses. 

All together, increasing pay for police, fire and all of LCG’s other employees could cost $10 million per year or more as proposed. If no new revenue were found or budget cuts made, the city would deplete its general fund by the end of 2022. Most other LCG employees are paid in part by the parish general fund; a government-wide pay raise would put even more pressure on a constrained parish budget. 

New revenue appears necessary to make the police plan work. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux supported increasing police pay and said it can be paid for by a mixture of fund balance, new revenue and more budget cuts. Specifically, he mentioned the possibility of bringing back red light cameras around schools and using that money to support the police pay raises. 

Boudreaux proposed two amendments to offset added costs. The first was to eliminate $726,000 budgeted for positions at the police department that are currently vacant. The second was to zero out the $1.9 million budgeted to pay for overtime at the police department. Both amendments failed after receiving significant pushback from the public.

Councilman Jared Bellard proposed eliminating all vacant positions across LCG. He advocated passionately for the need to find the money to fund this new pay plan for police, and suggested also looking at eliminating funding for non-governmental organizations.

What to watch for: A potentially electric final adoption vote on Nov. 5. The council will then determine whether to approve LPD’s new pay plan and/or tweak it further. But if Boudreaux and Bellard follow through on their proposed legislation, the council could face plans to provide 5% raises to all LCG employees and to eliminate all vacant positions across LCG. Hanging over these discussion is the tension of priorities, as councilmembers and the administration angle to find money in a shrinking budget. 

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Robideaux vetoes Louisiana Avenue extension, kicking the ball back to the council

The gist: As expected, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux vetoed a council budget amendment that would have kept $7 million in a project to complete Louisiana Avenue. Instead the money will go into a stormwater diversion fund he proposed at budget introduction. The council could override the veto with a six-member majority, an unlikely outcome. 

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Flare-up on jail funding previews tough sledding for the future parish council

The gist: A public spat between the sheriff and the Robideaux administration over jail funding is closing out the end of budget preparation. The sheriff wants parish government to shell out $1.7 million more to fund jail expenses and has brought lawyers to bear. 

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Get caught up, quickly: The Lafayette Parish Correctional Center is funded by a combined property tax that partially funds both the jail and the parish courthouse, services mandated by the state. Historically, the jail has taken the lion’s share of that millage, which was created to fund much smaller outfits at both facilities decades ago. Parish government is hard-pressed to pay more out of its general fund for state mandated services generally. 

What does the sheriff want? $1.7 million in contracted salaries for jail expenses like medical and mental health care, food service, maintenance, laundry, all of which are services mandated by the state, according to LPSO Chief Deputy Carlos Stout. The revenues would come from the parish general fund.

“We never considered this to be an argument,” Stout tells me. “It’s a difference of opinion about the way the law’s being interpreted. This is an issue that’s been discussed since 1992.”

What’s the dispute? Whether the state actually requires the parish to pay what Garber’s asking. The administration argues parish government isn’t responsible for costs associated with housing non-parish prisoners. Of 644 inmates currently housed at LPCC, roughly 55% is held on parish government’s behalf. City prisoners comprise the second largest share of the population at 24%. The remaining 20% is a mix of inmates housed for other Lafayette Parish municipalities, the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshal. In a memo to council members, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux touted a $500,000 increase in the proposed budget for “operational expenses.” Stout says that figure covers state mandated costs for housing prisoners and isn’t available to cover the contractual services needed.

Where’s the beef. Council members and sheriff’s officials have blamed the administration for failing to acknowledge the jail’s budget shortfall and opposing new taxes for the jail and district court system, proposed by council members in 2018. Robideaux maintains the budget is just fine and that the existing millages will grow enough over the long term to take care of business. In the memo published Tuesday, Robideaux pushed back against the criticism and suggested the issue could play out in a suit, pointing out that attorneys retained by the sheriff have pressed similar litigation elsewhere in the state. 

“I think what’s being overlooked in [Robideaux’s] projections are the capital improvement needs that require urgent attention for the courthouse,” Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. “When you see a surplus, that doesn’t even begin to cover the capital improvement needs.”

We can work it out. Robideaux has urged councilmembers to wait for further legal input before making any moves, budget-wise. The issue could be taken up after final adoption as a budget amendment by the current council or the next councils. Stout notes the LPSO brought the budget issue to the council and administration in April of this year. Conque, for his part, agrees with Robideaux’s suggestion to let the lawyers figure it out. 

Speaking of new councils. This is a great illustration of the serious budget pressure the new parish council will face. As Robideaux points out, paying the sheriff would likely mean cuts elsewhere in the parish budget, which last year briefly went into the red after the mayor-president’s plan to sell a parking garage fell through. Some argue this is precisely the sort of issue better addressed by a dedicated parish council. 

“When they start looking at the needs of the parish, it’s like ring around the rosey,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret, who serves on the council transition committee, tells me. “When the chairs are set somebody is going to be left standing up.” 

Why this matters. The parish budget is, objectively, a dumpster fire. While it takes in close to $100 million each year, most of the revenue is in dedicated funds. Unlocking the consolidated budget under the new split council configuration could put even more pressure on parish finances while capital needs for facilities like the jail and courthouse continue to grow. Political observers expect a difficult slog for those elected to the new parish council, and the political theater around the jail could be a glimpse of what’s to come. The budget is scheduled to be finalized at a special council meeting Thursday, but a flurry of amendments could delay adoption until later this month.

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Council votes to put library funds transfer on ballot, but not without changes or rancour

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.

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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.

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When dedicated taxes lock up options

Voters demand flexibility and quick responses, but representatives are hamstrung in their ability to divert dedicated funds.

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Transition team named to tackle change to separate councils

The gist: Two separate councils will govern Lafayette Consolidated Government starting in 2020, following Saturday’s vote. A four-member council liaison team will convene to cut through the weedy details.

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More councils, more problems. Or so the saying goes. The reality is the team could tackle a swath of issues on its way to untangling a complicated government contraption, not the least of which would be dealing with shared administrative functions. The team’s agenda isn’t yet defined, Councilman Bruce Conque tells me, but broadly speaking it’s tasked with paving an orderly path for transition. That begins with prepping the paperwork necessary to allow candidates to qualify and run for parish or city council seats in 2019. The new councils will get to governing in 2020.

The team is comprised of the charter amendments’ core proponents on the council. Council Chairman Kevin Naquin appointed himself, Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux to the transition team. Castille and Conque authored and pushed the amendments through the council.

Divvying up the budget pie won’t always be straight-forward. That’s what Mayor-President Joel Robideaux didn’t like in the proposition, when he groused that the parallel councils could deadlock. The transition team won’t necessarily be tasked with sorting out who pays for what; that’s an issue to be tackled at budget time. But in preparing the budget in 2019, the last city-parish council ever will need to produce a document that separate councils can work from. Some functions are easy to figure out. The city council, for instance, has sole purview over the Lafayette Police Department. Easy peasy. But others, like the $5.6 million consolidated government spends on its IT department, will be stickier. The city pays 87 percent of that cost, the parish pays 13 percent; each share is determined by sales tax receipts. Public Works, the largest consolidated agency, could present the biggest challenge.

There are 25 different methods to determine who pays what. And you thought splitting restaurant checks was frustrating. The methods, called allocation formulas, are determined by a contractor, but the council (later councils) approve them in the budget process. Soon to come, the government equivalent of “I only ordered a salad.”

It’s nothing that’s not solvable,” Conque says of the complications ahead. Given the holiday season, the team likely won’t meet until 2019.

What to watch for: Candidates. Four incumbent council members — Liz Hebert, Bruce Conque, Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook — can run for either council. Conque has already declared to run for city council. Naquin has one term left and can spend it on the parish council only, given his residence outside of city limits. With Boudreaux, Castille, Jared Bellard and William Theriot all termed out, there will be at least five open races, most of which will likely be for parish council seats.

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What’s next after NextGEN

On Monday, NextGen withdrew their offer to manage LUS hours before the Council voted against considering any deal like it. So now what?

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LCG balances the budget and avoids cuts with plan to sell Buchanan garage to private interests

The council and administration patched an unexpected hole in the current budget with a windfall of sales tax collections and a new solution to the the Buchanan garage problem: sell it to private interests.

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The Buchanan garage problem

It’s a microcosm of the state of our current affairs — a parish asset, that’s really a liability, decaying from neglect with no solution in sight.

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In making no statement on Drag Queen Story Time, the council sent a mixed message

In drafting the non-binding resolution on Drag Queen Story Time, William Theriot and Jared Bellard’s apparent intent was nakedly cynical: trap councilmen on a wedge issue as fodder for future politicking.

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Incivility in local politics

Despite the negative consequences to incivility in government, there are surprising and often ignored potential fringe benefits.

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How the politics of the council split is shaping up

The gist: After weeks of speculation and backroom conversation, the effort to create separate city and parish councils has come online. 

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Conventional wisdom holds that the justification for the measure — equal representation for city of Lafayette residents — is obvious enough to make the six votes at final vote on July 24 necessary to put it before voters on Dec. 8 an easy win. But the effort is hardly a lock. The proposed ordinance also includes changes to the zoning commission and to procedures for civil service board nominations and, fittingly, amending the charter. 

▸ Where there was one, there would be two. The nine-member consolidated council would split into two new bodies handling the city’s and parish’s respective legislative business. Each council would have five members, growing total area representation by one seat. Otherwise, “consolidated” government remains more or less the same. The city and parish will continue to share public services. The mayor-president would remain an at-large position with parish-wide authority. This is not, by any stretch, deconsolidation. The logic of the move is to create more equal representation for the city of Lafayette and clear up budgetary processes. Councilman Jay Castille, largely viewed as a parish councilman, says the amendment would free up parish-oriented councilmen to focus on that side of the consolidated ledger and bring to fore the parish’s financial trouble, which is arguably papered over by the city’s largesse. 

“It’s a brand new game” for sitting council members, says Councilman Bruce Conque, one of the amendment’s architects. Creating two new councils would effectively reset term limits for the council members currently serving. That’s a thread of criticism already picked up by Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. A potential opposition would be that this entire plan is a scheme cooked up to entrench incumbent politicos. The amendment also updates the charter minimum pay (originally $18,000) for the council members’ salaries to the current council pay of $30,356 a year. 

“It’s changed significantly, I can tell you that,” says Councilman Pat Lewis of his district, which is altered heavily as proposed. Lewis declined to comment further until council discussion on Tuesday, telling me he had only seen the updated maps today. The maps are not yet finalized, but as it stands, Lewis would lose center city neighborhoods and would run his next campaign in a racially split council district. He currently represents one of two majority-black districts on the consolidated council. How the district maps are drawn could be the hill the effort dies on. 

▸ What to watch for: Who’s for it and who’s against it. That’s obvious, I know. But the latter half of that equation has yet to be settled. Councilman William Theriot has stated emphatically that he’ll oppose the move. He says it doesn’t fix the underlying parish budget problems. He’s floated the concept of divvying up the unincorporated parts of the parish and assigning them to each municipality. The council vote count favors passage of the amendment but isn’t yet a lock. But even if it passes the council — final vote would occur on July 24 — the amendment would require a general election. Kevin Blanchard, a proponent of deconsolidation, plans to organize a campaign supportive of the amendment. Still, stark battle lines have not yet been drawn.

▸ A wild card: This election season is going to be nuts. Between a potentially electric congressional race and several tax propositions, your mailbox is gonna get positively stuffed. How that impacts this charter amendment vote is a big unknown. The idea doesn’t fall neatly along ideological lines. Those dynamics are difficult to predict.

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