Lafayette’s city and parish councils passed a compromise budget that doesn’t address any of the city’s or parish’s major budgetary problems.
The gist: Two well-known community advocates have quit a task force convened by the mayor-president to tackle healthcare disparities suffered by Lafayette’s Black community. Their departures, announced Friday, parallel sustained outrage at the mayor-president’s decision to shutter four recreation centers on Lafayette’s predominantly Black Northside.
Tina Shelvin Bingham, a community organizer who leads the McComb-Veazey Community Coterie and runs community development for Habitat for Humanity, explicitly names the rec center closures as a reason for her exit, saying in an email obtained by The Current that the administration’s actions have “eroded the trust of North Lafayette residents.”
The other confirmed resignation is Tonya Bolden-Ball, who serves as the program manager for the Center for Minority Excellence at SLCC. In an email informing the task force of her resignation, Bolden-Ball notes a lack of “alignment” with the task force’s vision, but offers no specific grievance. Reached by phone, she declined to comment further.
Bingham’s email, however, is pointed and blunt, describing a lack of organization on the task force and a lack of input afforded its sprawling membership, which includes council members, clergy, neighborhood advocates and healthcare professionals.
“We have struggled to gain equity and inclusion in the planning and mobilizing of testing sites and resources in [City Council] Districts 1 & 5,” Bingham writes. “This compounds the need for working group leaders and members to gain clarity and a clear understanding of our role on this taskforce and decision making. We cannot build a plane if the parts are in a locked closet.”
Bingham was not available for further comment.
Her complaint is echoed by other task force members who say the group has struggled to define its goals and take flight since launching in April. The task force has met several times over the last few months and has coordinated additional Covid-19 testing in Black neighborhoods. LCG announced recently that it would continue offering no-cost testing at the Northgate Mall through Aug. 12, attributing that service to the work of the health equity task force.
The group was launched by Mayor-President Josh Guillory in April, as data began to show that Black Louisianans were suffering the worst of the pandemic, particularly in New Orleans. A statewide task force was launched earlier that month. To date, Black residents account for 40% of Covid-19 fatalities in Lafayette Parish and 33% of reported cases, but make up around 25% of the overall population, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
To run the local task force, Guillory appointed Carlos Harvin, LCG chief of minority affairs. Harvin has come under fire recently, suffering open shots at his credibility from other Black community leaders. Many view his appointment as barter for supporting Josh Guillory after the Democrat’s own campaign, which was announced late and raised virtually no money, sputtered in the primary. Asked about that during an intense interview with former Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who has spared few words for Harvin, the pastor clarified that he did not endorse Guillory, without directly addressing the question of political compensation. Harvin stands to receive a $10,000 raise in LCG’s recently proposed budget.
“The leaders of the Black community knew that he was never there for us,” NAACP chapter President Marja Broussard says of Harvin. Broussard served on the health equity task force but dropped out after growing frustrated with its lack of direction. A member of the communications committee, she says they had yet to formulate a mission for that committee by the time she left around the beginning of June. Broussard has loudly decried Guillory’s rec center decision and calls his overtures toward the Black community — including his support for moving the statue of Confederate General Alfred Mouton — an “illusion.”
Defending the task force and its leader’s record, LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle says Harvin has worked “day and night” to expand testing access to Black neighborhoods, launching 10 testing sites with community partners.
“There is so much anger and misunderstanding right now, instead of communication and collaboration,” Angelle says. “Now is the time to open more dialogue, the time to come up with solutions to the new challenges we have been facing.”
Broussard says testing is not enough. Echoing some sentiments in Bingham’s parting email, she argues the task force falls well short of what she and others understood to be its purpose: tackling the underlying social and economic disparities entangled in the Black community’s historically poor health outcomes.
Bingham and Bolden-Ball are community leaders, the real “boots on the ground,” Broussard says, and their departure signals the task force’s shortcomings.
Understanding what the budget says isn’t always easy. The Current’s budget guru Geoff Daily is here to help.
The gist: A conservative who ran on reining in government spending, Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory zeroed out millions in city spending in his first budget proposal since taking office. Unveiled Tuesday night, the budget calls for arts, recreation and community development programming to take the brunt of the austerity cuts, while what Guillory calls core government services remain largely intact.
The operating budget would be reduced by $30 million, with most cuts hitting the city’s general fund. The deep cuts are set against a predicted $23 million decline in revenues for the next fiscal year. Last year’s consolidated budget topped $630 million, including the utility system, which is roughly half of the budget all by itself. Guillory’s proposed budget, introduced to the councils Tuesday night, frames up a $600 million consolidated budget. Lafayette’s city general fund hovers around $100 million in appropriations annually.
Covid-19 figures prominently in the budget messaging, but many of the cuts target services Guillory views as secondary to the functions of government. Other savings were realized by ordinances passed to pause scheduled pay raises for the city police, fire and LCG employees. Those raises are a big part of the ongoing operating deficit Guillory inherited.
“We have to ask the difficult questions and be willing to freshly examine old assumptions,” Guillory writes in his budget message. “By honestly examining all aspects of our operations and diligently seeking better ways to do things, we can develop a real culture of innovation in Lafayette Consolidated Government.”
As a candidate, Guillory promised to do more with less. And that messaging was consistent before the pandemic blew up municipal budgets across the country and dried up tax revenues. He signed a pledge with conservative backers during his run, promising not to raise taxes and to prioritize infrastructure and public safety as core government priorities, rhetoric he’s stuck to since taking office. His budget accomplishes that and then some. Many of the notable cuts are to programs heavily criticized by the hardline conservatives that backed Guillory.
Those savings may come at great cost to families who rely on programs facing steep cuts. Guillory cut city general fund subsidies to the Parks and Recreation budget by 37%, including closures to four rec centers on the Northside and layoffs to three dozen employees. That’s on top of layoffs at the Lafayette Science Museum, Heymann Performing Arts Center and other cultural programs that sparked fierce backlash earlier this summer. Going into Tuesday’s council meeting, the rec center decision surfaced outrage among Black leaders blindsided by the late-week announcement and subsequent scrambles to explain the decision. Guillory faced a long chain of rebuke from community members, egged on by jeers from the auditorium, in a marathon meeting that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. Many called Guillory to find cuts in his own office, including sacking Guillory’s chief of minority affairs, Carlos Harvin, a former member of the Senior Pastoral Alliance who’s reportedly lost what little credibility he had with many Black leaders.
“You should be ashamed,” NAACP chapter President Marja Broussard said through a mask, turning her glare directly to the seated mayor-president. Broussard and others have characterized Guillory’s cuts as disparate in their treatment of services cherished by the Black community. His decision to back moving a Confederate statue in Downtown Lafayette brought him little to no capital with aggrieved Black leaders, who nonetheless chastised the administration for failing to understand the role the rec centers play. Around 2 a.m., the city council voted unanimously to support moving the statue, an emotional coda to the meeting.
Guillory defended the rec cuts by sticking with a justification he made in the days after the announcement spurred rallies and a widely circulated petition. “The facts are one-third of our rec centers still proudly serve the Northside,” he said coolly in the heat of public comment. Again, the auditorium groaned and Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin gaveled for order. All four rec centers are in neighborhoods with relatively low rates of vehicle ownership. The administration’s vaguely articulated plan for public-private partnerships with local church groups has not curried favor among advocates fighting to keep the rec centers open.
“You’ve made it perfectly clear what the priorities of the administration is, and that’s fine; I certainly respect that. But parks and recreation and anti-poverty programs and services provided by community development are to my district what drainage is to Liz and Nanette’s districts,” City Councilman Glenn Lazard said, referencing fellow City Council members Liz Hebert and Nanette Cook, both of whom represent portions of south Lafayette. Lazard’s comment was met with loud applause from a packed council auditorium Tuesday night.
Many of the cuts would remain indefinitely. Longterm, the administration severs operating subsidies — supplemental dollars from the city general fund — for many of the affected programs. That’s consistent with Guillory’s calls to remake local government as we know it and push for more privatization where possible. Some cuts will be restored. Subsidies to Lafayette Transit System would stop for the next two fiscal years, replaced in the interim by a $7 million award from the federal coronavirus stimulus, with funding reverting to pre-Covid levels. But others, like the cuts to the Heymann Performing Arts Center that drew uproar from the dance companies that use the space, won’t be restored.
The budget forecasts steep losses in revenue into the next year. In her published budget discussion, Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups projects a 17% reduction in sales tax revenue in the current fiscal year, and another 11% decrease in the next one That includes $7.5 million in lost utility revenues, as bills have gone unpaid during the pandemic. LUS rolled out a program to help families catch up on their bills, spreading the debt out as long as they’re able to stop accruing more. It’s unclear whether LCG will take advantage of the $35 million in debt capacity it sought as a backstop to operations.
Belts are tightening hard while the city’s substantial reserves are jealously protected. Noting in his budget message the $18 million operating deficit he “inherited” from the previous administration and council, Guillory makes sparing use of the substantial cushion provided by general fund reserves. The city sat on an unaudited fund balance of $54 million going into this year, an amount that would cover 50% of its annual operating costs. For perspective, the city of Lafayette began fiscal year 2010 with a $19 million fund balance, then 20% of its audited expenses, at a time when consolidated government was climbing out of a hole. Guillory’s proposed budget and forecasts for coming years would park the general fund balance around $30 million, or 30% of operating costs while revenues creep up. Long-standing local fiscal policy has targeted a fund balance covering 20% of expenses. Guillory’s proposal, anticipating sluggish revenue growth, keeps reserves well above that threshold.
“That is what I’m looking into. I get you’re trying to keep money in the general fund. These are the rainy day funds,” says Councilwoman Cook, who has also needled the administration for a lack of communication on some budget figures, including the numbers used to justify the rec center closures. She notes $890,000 in unencumbered CREATE funds, a figure she’d been after to clarify but unable to get pinned down. “That’s the first time I’m getting that number. Those are funds that could be put to good use. To shut down things just for a nice float…I don’t think so.”
This is a proposed budget and subject to council debate. Both the city and parish councils will have to sign off on the administration’s plan. Over the next couple of months, budget sessions will break the constituent parts down, and council amendments could radically change how the budget looks once it gets to the other side of final adoption. And even then, major changes can be made. Most of the added expenses weighing down the current budget — pay raises for police, fire and LCG personnel — were passed after the previous budget was adopted.
The gist: The fallout of LCG’s failing financials continues, with pay raises on the chopping block. At the same time, the Bottle Arts Lofts project is looking for more taxpayer support. The City Council will take up backing Mayor-President Guillory’s push to move the Mouton statue. And scooters may be returning to Lafayette’s streets. Access the agendas here.
The city council will discuss throwing their support behind the push to move the Mouton statue. At the beginning of July, Mayor-President Josh Guillory announced his intent to move the General Mouton statue away from its perch at a prominent Downtown intersection. Tomorrow, the Lafayette City Council will vote on a resolution formalizing its support for this effort. While the resolution won’t carry the weight of law, it will be a significant symbolic next step in this decades-long process to relocate what many see as a monument glorifying slavery.
More city sales tax money may be used to prop up the city’s general fund. The city of Lafayette collects two 1-cent sales taxes. Currently, up to 35% of that money can be used for operating expenses in the city’s general fund. The rest is used to fund the city’s capital investments in things like roads and buildings. City Councilman Pat Lewis has submitted a resolution that would call a public vote before year’s end to raise the amount of those funds that can go into the city’s general fund to 45%. This would increase city general fund revenue by approximately $8 million. Doing this would reduce the city’s funds dedicated to capital but would go a long way to closing what is now the city’s $11 million operating deficit next year.
The Bottle Arts Lofts is asking for more taxpayer support. This redevelopment of the old Coke bottling plant at Four Corners into artists lofts has already received a $1.5 million no-interest loan from the city. Now the developers of this project are requesting historic restoration tax abatements from both the city and parish councils. Basically, they don’t want to pay property taxes for five years. In total this will cost both the city and the parish about $720,000 in new property tax revenue, or more than $1.4 million over the next five years. Critics of this project question the economics of this project, which is more than 80% funded by taxpayer dollars and is budgeted to cost three to four times the market value of surrounding properties on a per-square-foot basis.
Suspension of pay increases up for final adoption. One of the victims of LCG’s financial challenges could be the 2% pay raises LCG employees, as well as fire and police, are supposed to receive. With the city in particular facing a $28 million operating deficit, decisions like this may be inevitable, but they’re still going to be frustrating to the people who work at LCG and are counting on these raises.
State roads may start looking nicer. A plan to have LCG take over responsibility for mowing and picking up litter on state roads may take another step forward. The challenge has been that the state doesn’t have the manpower to handle this responsibility. The plan is for the state to instead pay LCG to get this work done. Hopefully it’ll mean major state roads like Johnston, Pinhook, the Evangeline Thruway and University will start looking a lot nicer if this deal comes together.
Scooters may be coming back! An introductory ordinance of the joint council would start the process of putting in place rules that are required to allow shared scooter services like Bird and Lime back on Lafayette’s streets. It’s not clear yet if these rules will pass or, if they do, whether those scooters will instantly reappear. But it’s likely to lead to another lively debate as there are people who passionately support and oppose them.
Look out for an update on the Buchanan Garage. At the Parish Council meeting, there’ll be a report on the state of the Buchanan Garage. The last news about that property involved taking down all the concrete panels to assess the extent to the damage and determine whether the building could be salvaged. Look for more insight into what the next steps might be, whether it’s fixing the structure and reopening it or tearing it down.
A new early voting branch may be opening at the East Regional Library, but not everyone’s happy about it. The site would be funded initially by the cities of Broussard and Youngsville. But the League of Women Voters has voiced concern about investing in another site while voter accessibility continues to be a problem at the primary early voting site in Downtown Lafayette. Making this all the more difficult is the parish’s financial struggles, which limit its options for making any improvements on its own.
Broussard may be taking over Arceneaux Park. Following the lead of Youngsville, which took over maintenance of Foster Park earlier this summer, Broussard is proposing to take responsibility for maintaining Arceneaux Park. The parish has multiple parks in other municipalities, but has had limited funds to maintain these parks. These transfers allow these cities to ensure these parks are assets rather than eyesores.
Lafayette’s economy can’t get healthy if its people aren’t healthy. The only way to slow the spread of this coronavirus is to get 80-90% of people to wear masks or to shut the everything back down again. Faced with those options, Lafayette needs to do everything in its power to get people to wear masks, not just to save lives but to save our economy.
Before we break out the tar and feathers, we need to appreciate the context of Guillory’s budget cuts. Given the dire straits of the city’s financials, these cuts—and more—are arguably inevitable.
The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory had an uneasy time explaining an email he sent to council members Tuesday morning claiming veteran Parks & Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux would be “announcing his retirement from LCG soon.”
Even if the coronavirus wasn’t causing a global depression, Lafayette’s city and parish general funds would be in rough shape. But now shortfalls in revenue are going to force some painful cuts.
The gist: Both the city and parish council agendas are light this week. That makes plenty of room for what should be a lively slate for the five economic development districts created earlier this year. The city council members will vote to levy sales and hotel occupancy taxes in their boundaries.
Economic Development Districts
Special taxes for special districts: Five special taxing districts, called economic development districts, were created earlier this year to raise revenue for economic development within their boundaries. On Tuesday, the district governing authorities — the members of the city council — will hold a public hearing and vote to levy sales and hotel occupancy taxes. A lawsuit has challenged the districts on procedural grounds. Here are the districts and their proposed taxes:
- Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
- University Gateway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
- Trappey Economic Development District – 2% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
- Northway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
- Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
Something to keep in mind: These are meetings of the district governing authorities, not the city council. The council members make up the district authorities as individuals, not as a council. Those governing authorities alone determine what’s done with the money.
Green infrastructure grant application. The Planning Department is seeking approval to apply for a grant to contract help in developing guidelines for green infrastructure. Green infrastructure broadly refers to natural systems or designs for managing stormwater and addressing flood risks. Think bioswales and natural drainage channels. This is a resolution.
Changes to public employee retirement benefit. Billed as another cost-saving measure that could cut “hundreds of thousands of dollars” — according to an internal memo — from future budgets, the administration wants to swap out state retirement plans for municipal employees, excluding police, fire and city court. The proposal would require future employees to enter the state’s parochial employee retirement system instead of the municipal employee retirement system. This item is up for introduction.
▸ The gist: The city and parish councils have another slow night scheduled for their meetings on Feb. 4 with a smattering of housekeeping. The only big items on the agenda are two resolutions to approve restoration tax abatements for redevelopment projects.
▸ Tax breaks. There are two resolutions on the agenda to approve requests for restoration tax abatement. This state program allows owners to invest in restoring their properties without having to increase their property taxes for a period of time because of the increased value of their restored property.
- University Place Apartments. These apartments were purchased for $12.5 million by Alpha Capital Partners of Pennsylvania through its Opportunity Zone Fund last year. The plan is to invest $7.5 million in renovating the interior and exterior of this building. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego generating an additional $564,995 in property taxes.
- Park Place Surgery Center. This property was purchased for $4.1 million by local investment group Imperial Property Holdings last year. The plan is to invest $5 million in renovating and expanding the building for a new surgery center. If approved, this five-year restoration tax abatement would mean that this property will forego paying an additional $675,995 in property taxes.
If both are approved, over the next five years LCG will be giving up more than $1.2 million in additional property taxes. Both projects were announced last year as moving forward with no mention of the need for potential restoration tax abatements to be financially viable.
▸ A new Professional Services Review committee. This five-member committee reviews and recommends approval of contracts with LCG. The amended chartered required a reconfiguration of the committee. Each council will nominate one member, both to serve through the end of 2023. The mayor-president has one appointment, and the other two seats are taken by the public works director and the utilities director.
▸ An intergovernmental agreement to give city fire department equipment to parish fire protection. This agreement allows the parish to use 10 outdated radios that the city fire department isn’t using anymore. But determining how the parish is allowed to continue using city equipment given the split councils is an issue that will need to be addressed moving forward.
▸ Donating adjudicated properties to Holy Family School. The two properties in question are at 139 S. Bienville St. and 213 S. Bienville St.
The gist: This is it — barring any special meetings — the last-ever meeting of the Lafayette City-Parish Council. Wasting no political opportunity, the agenda is chocked full of hot-button items.
Six new taxing districts. With the EDDs likely to be the biggest showdown of the bunch, the council will take up separate votes on these new sales and hotel taxes to raise money for development around the Northgate Mall, Acadiana Mall, the University Avenue corridor, and Downtown, as well as redevelopment projects at the Holy Rosary Institute and the former Trappey’s canning plant. Incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory just announced publicly opposition to the districts and urged the council to punt them to next year. Here’s an explainer on the ins and outs.
Robideaux’s report on LUS/Fiber. Outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will wrap up an eight-month investigation into “questionable” payments between consolidated government agencies and LUS Fiber. Along the way, Robideaux has suggested impropriety on the part of retired LUS Director Terry Huval, namely that millions were spent unlawfully under his watch to prop the municipal telecom up. The Louisiana Public Service Commission has distanced itself from the inquiry despite Robideaux’s insistence that it began with a PSC request.
New funding agreement for city prisoners. The administration is moving money around — including selling a parking lot — to pay in part for a $1.25 million intergovernmental agreement to house city prisoners at the parish correctional center. Three separate ordinances cover a fund balance transfer, the parking lot sale and execution of the IGA, which stipulates that the money go to capital improvements at the jail. Note: This doesn’t address the funding dispute between the sheriff and parish government.
Restoring funding to the juvenile assessment center. Sheriff Mark Garber shuttered the juvenile assessment center, among other so-called diversion programs, citing budget problems. An ordinance by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who works under contract for LPSO and has taken criticism for a conflict of interest, would restore $600,000 to JAC by transferring some fund balance out of the juvenile detention center.
5% pay raises for City Court employees. This is the last of a batch of pay raises for public employees passed recently. It adds another $55,000 in personnel costs to the city budget, which is facing more and more financial pressure. The council has adopted millions in increased salaries for the police department and other public employees.