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Analysis: Lafayette will have its hands full paying for pay raises

The City-Parish Council’s decision to authorize $3.8 million in pay raises for the Lafayette Police Department was unanimous but not without complication. While the move is a victory for police, who said the new money was needed to stop a crisis in officer turnover, the added costs have put a spotlight on a weakening of the city‘s finances. And there […]

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We’ve got five billion reasons for you to vote

In total, the one mayor-president, five city council members, five parish council members and nine school board members we’re electing will decide how $5 billion will be spent in our community over the next four years.

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COLUMN: The elephant in this election is Lafayette’s billion dollar infrastructure deficit

Years of kicking the infrastructure can down the road has finally caught up with us.

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‘Doing nothing is not an option;’ Northside coalition creates black community agenda for local elections

The gist: Several Northside community organizations co-authored a comprehensive agenda calling for school board and LCG candidates to see generational poverty, lack of economic progress and failing schools as a local crisis deserving urgent intervention. 

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Housing, economic development, education and racial equity take top billing in a comprehensive document designed to force candidates for local public office to reckon with the Northside’s challenges on the campaign trail. The topics range across 13 areas of focus, also including criminal justice reform, public transit access and even drainage. Viewing the election as a leveraging point, the agenda criticizes local institutions and leadership for failing to address long-festering problems in the area. You can read the full agenda here. It includes a comprehensive list of participating organizations.

“We felt it was unfair to allow anyone to run for office, whether it’s in a council district or it’s the mayor-president, and we don’t have a framework for what our needs are,” says the Rev. Ken Lazard of Destiny of Faith Church. Lazard served on the coalition in his capacity as president of the Oasis Coterie in north Lafayette’s Truman neighborhood. 

The document has influenced two recent forums. Completed in several sessions over the summer, the “consensus” agenda was used as source material in probing candidates for mayor-president and the city and parish councils about issues facing north Lafayette at recent forums hosted by 100 Black Men and the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce. 

Doing nothing is not an option. That’s the agenda’s message, top-to-bottom. Policy initiatives target contracting and hiring disparities with LCG, calling for consolidated government to set a 10% benchmark for contracting minority-owned businesses and a 30% target for hiring black employees. Vacant and collapsing businesses have come to dominate the economic landscape in the area over the last few decades. The median income census tract covering Truman is $28,000. In some Northside blocks, income averages drop below $20,000. Parishwide, the median income is $52,000, boosted by affluence in much of south Lafayette. The agenda demands that the next crop of elected officials do something to stem rampant decline and change course from planning practices they say have intensified income gaps and contributed to high concentrations of poverty. 

“When you look at the data, the trend line is going down, not up,” activist Greg Davis, the coalition’s facilitator and lead organizer, says. “The outcomes are not good. If the outcomes are not good, that means the entities that do exist need to step up, renew themselves and reinvigorate in order to reverse that trend line.” Davis, a longtime education advocate who chairs the board of T.M. Landry College Prep, points to failing public schools in Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods as towering obstacles to prosperity in the area. The agenda itself calls the disparity a policy failure at LPSS, crystallized by a prejudiced view that black families don’t value education.  

“Without the proper education and training, too many north Lafayette residents will continue to work in part time jobs, with no benefits and receive near minimum wage pay,” the agenda reads. “Turning around the underperforming schools of north Lafayette must be a top priority for LCG and LPSS.” 

The agenda highlights dismal school performance among black students. Only 22% of students at Alice Boucher Elementary in the Truman neighborhood performed at grade level, according to 2018 data provided in the agenda. The school’s population is 95% African American. While 34% of Paul Breaux Middle School broader student population performed at grade level, only 19% of its black students did. Paul Breaux is in a predominantly poor, black neighborhood, the agenda says, yet the gifted program that buoys its numbers serves primarily white students from higher income families. 

Fixing schools isn’t just the school board’s job. The agenda argues that the mayor-president and council both have a role in prioritizing education and addressing access gaps, despite the lack of immediate oversight over public education. The coalition calls for the planned Northeast Library branch to be built near Northside High School and J.W. Faulk Elementary. 

Hopes remain high on Opportunity Zones. The agenda frequently cites the federal tax incentive program, designed to channel big money into low-income census tracts, as a key tool for economic progress in the area. But the leadership behind the agenda remains skeptical about the threat of development or infrastructure projects that would push out residents or exacerbate blight. While viewing the I-49 Connector as an opportunity for investment, it pushes future leadership to reconsider the planned elevated design of the freeway spur through the heart of Lafayette’s urban core. The Department of Transportation and Development has purchased $11 million in properties along the Evangeline Thruway corridor, leaving many homes and businesses in neighborhoods vacant and in limbo while the decades-old project continues to limp forward. The Senior Pastoral Alliance, organized and previously led by Lazard, supported One Acadiana in the business organization’s efforts to rally the completion of the Connector when the design activities revived in 2015. 

Ground-up redevelopment is the preferred strategy. Calling for a “reconstituting” of the defunct North Lafayette Redevelopment Board, the agenda pushes for future redevelopment strategies to work with existing neighborhood organizations, like the McComb-Veazey Coterie and others, to encourage small business development and community-oriented housing that attracts mixed-income families. Most of the 1,500 adjudicated properties in Lafayette Parish are in Northside neighborhoods. Consolidated government has put few resources into moving the orphaned, tax-delinquent properties back into commerce. LCG’s planning and zoning department inherited the task, and doesn’t have dedicated staff for processing. Lafayette Habitat for Humanity is one of the few organizations that have taken advantage of the program, using the program’s preference for donating the properties to nonprofit and neighborhood organizations to patch together owner-occupied pocket neighborhoods. 

“There definitely aren’t enough resources,” Lazard says, explaining the rationale for revisiting an independent development board. “It needs to be an entity by itself, because the government is very slow, especially planning and zoning. We need an entity that moves and does what it needs to do and moves at its own speed.” 

The document reflects a consensus of those who put it together. The coalition intentionally excluded politicians and candidates. Mayor-president hopeful Carlos Harvin was asked to excuse himself when he declared his candidacy late in election qualifying. Organizations responded to what Lazard says was a “clarion call” to participate.

What to watch for: How the agenda surfaces in the final stretch of campaigning before the Oct. 12 primary and beyond. Some of the coalition’s talking points have made it into the election dialogue, but issues like parishwide drainage, a somewhat less urgent issue in most Northside neighborhoods, have dominated the campaign trail. Northside’s decline is generations in the making, and an about-face will require a commitment from leadership not limited to districts and seats of power that traditionally represent the black community.

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Robideaux expected to veto Louisiana Avenue budget amendment

The gist: Last week, the City-Parish Council restored $7 million in funding to extend Louisiana Avenue, narrowly passing an amendment to next year’s budget that blocked the mayor-president’s proposal to move that money to undetermined drainage projects. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux is expected to veto the amendment and send the issue back to the council where a supermajority vote would be needed to overrule him.

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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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LETTER: The cost of doing nothing on the Buchanan garage

Our inability to work together has slowed and stymied progress in the city of Lafayette, while spurring much more expensive growth in the outskirts of our parish.

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Calculate the increase to your tax bill from proposed library and airport millage increases

Property tax rates for the airport commission and the library system would be increased to voter-approved ceilings if the council passes a pair of ordinances introduced this week.

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Don’t really get the split council thing? We got ya covered.

It’s clear that there remains a lot of fog to lift on just what the hell is happening with local government next year. If you’re not a local political junkie, this explainer is for you.

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Path to two councils is uphill, and there isn’t much time to climb

The gist: A committee created to guide the transition to two councils met for the first time Tuesday, nine months after the vote creating the new government structure for Lafayette. Members of the 14-person body raised concerns about the complexity of the task and the tight window to get it done. 

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“This list is long; I’m not sure we can get to every single item,” transition committee chairman Jerry Luke LeBlanc warned of the group’s assignment in opening remarks following his election. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who convened the committee, set the tone for the meeting with an overview of the sticky points expected to vex future councils. The message was clear: This is going to be difficult to manage; let’s measure expectations of what can get done. 

The body is advisory only. Whatever changes the committee recommends will serve as signposts. The body now has legal authority to define how the new councils work. The real burden of making the transition go smoothly falls on the new councils and the new mayor-president, who will take office in January. 

You can see the committee’s full roster here. 

Organizing the committee began in early June, while the legal challenge of the charter amendments was wrapping up. Robideaux distributed an outline of upcoming landmines on Monday. Discussion of forming some kind of transition team dates back to December of last year, shortly after the measure was passed. 

I would much rather that this body would have been created two years ago to discuss the upcoming charter that was proposed and given to the public to vote on,” District Attorney Keith Stutes, a committee member, said. “I see a long, uphill climb here.”  

Can’t we all just get along? The amended charter provides little guidance on how to navigate potential disputes between the two councils, who are jointly responsible for the consolidated budget and must approve expenses for shared functions by separate majority votes. In the current budget, roughly $41 million in expenses are paid by combined parish and city revenues, with the city picking up around 80% of the tab. That cost-share — called cost allocation in the budget — is expected to be a thorny subject to tackle given the financial disparity between the city’s books and the parish’s. 

Put simply, the city has money and the parish doesn’t. That means the new parish council will start life gasping for air, while city council members work to lock down their dollars.

Learning curves abound. The two new councils will take office in five months with plenty of fresh faces. At least four of the five members of the parish council will be brand new officials, with no prior council experience. There is one open seat on the new city council, with all four incumbent seats contested. 

The committee itself has a steep learning curve. Most of the committee members, appointed by various parish organizations with stake on the council, are beginning the process with limited knowledge of how consolidated government currently works, particularly the labyrinthine budget processes used to navigate LCG’s various shared functions like public works, parks and recreation and the IT department. 

Fixing the charter (again) would be a much more difficult political undertaking. Super majorities of both councils — four votes on each — are required to amend the charter any further. That level of difficulty could limit the options the committee proposes. 

“I’m very concerned this is going to be a poison pill,” committee member and Clerk of Court Louis Perrett says of the high bar for amending the charter. Perret believes separating the mayor-president position and reforming how the separate councils approve joint budgets are necessary steps to make this work, changes that would require further charter amendments and another public vote. Mayor-president candidates Simone Champagne and Josh Guillory have voiced support for splitting up that office, as has council candidate Keith Kisbaugh. 

What now? The current consolidated council is poised to adopt a budget for next year, which will cover 10 months of government by two councils. There had been discussion of creating a split budget to anticipate the new offices, but Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said Tuesday it may be an easier starting point for newly minted officials to work with a familiar budget. The adopted budget can be amended next year, as the two councils continue to build a plane in flight. 

What to watch for: Meetings and ideas. The committee is expected to meet twice a month to work through the bullet points defined by Robideaux. Already, members floated fixes to foreseen quagmires, including more charter amendments and joint service agreements for shared functions. Regardless if these any of these ideas have merit, taking the committee’s advice will be the new government’s call.

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Republic Services put on notice

The gist: Councilwoman Liz Hebert gave trash contractor Republic Services three weeks to provide documentation about fleet size and routes, age and maintenance history on each of its vehicles and records of street damage and clean-ups from hydraulic fluid and “leaking trash juice.”

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More than 13,000 complaints have been logged since 2016 about the company’s service, Hebert said at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting. So far this year, records from LCG show, Republic has been fined $24,200 for missed collections. Fines, which LCG pockets by deducting what it pays Republic monthly, are $25 a day and start on the second day a collection is missed. The 2019 tally is down significantly from last year. For the first six months of 2018, Republic was fined $65,800, ending that year with a total fine of $73,475. Hebert told The Current last week that she gets complaints from residents about poor service every single day.

Hebert asked to restart monthly reporting to the Public Works Department on various metrics, a past practice that for unknown reasons ceased some time ago. Republic officials attended Tuesday’s meeting to address a host of problems, at her request. Republic General Manager Steve Sytsma appeared before the council along with Randy Dixon, who manages municipal relationships for the Arizona-based company’s Southeast market. Dixon flew in from out of state. 

The extraordinary number of missed collections in the first quarter 2018 triggered a steeper penalty provision in the contract. According to LCG Environmental Codes Supervisor Russell Bourg, Republic was cited for falling below its average monthly service effectiveness rate of 99.75 percent, which is calculated quarterly per terms spelled out in the contract. Bourg says he prepared the paperwork for a $75,000 fine at that time. 

LCG has not yet responded to a public records request about whether the fine was paid.

The contract may be renegotiated. Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux took Hebert’s proposal a step further, calling for contract renegotiation or an agreement with concessions, similar to what Baton Rouge got in recent months after experiencing its own problems with Republic. In response to dissatisfaction in the capital city, the company laid out a plan in May to hire more workers, update its fleet and continue twice-a-week trash collection, The Advocate reported.

“Right now the marriage is just not happy,” Boudreaux said of the contract with LCG, which is the company’s second-largest in the state and runs till 2023. “This second-largest contract needs some love,” the councilman added. Dixon assured Boudreaux the company was open to discussions.

High turnover at the company has left a void for council members and residents, who are often forced to use an out-of-state call center for answers. A number of council members repeated old requests for a local call center to field complaints, citing numerous instances in which information from the call center conflicted with what Republic officials were telling them Tuesday night.

One of the night’s more testy exchanges involved Hebert challenging the company on new cart delivery and replacements for damaged receptacles. Residents who have gone a month or more without a cart were told by Republic employees to use a neighbor’s trash container while they waited, Hebert said. Sytsma, however, insisted that Republic has purchased two truckloads of new carts per month (each with 550 carts) for the past several months at a cost of $60,000 a month. 

“So you have carts in stock?” Hebert persisted. 

“Ma’am, we run three cart routes every day,” Sytsma said. “I think last month we ran an additional three cart routes.”

When the Republic reps advised Hebert that the call center had given her bad information about cart availability, she shot back: “That information was given from your team to my Public Works team locally, not from a call center,” she said. Councilman Pat Lewis also contradicted Sytsma’s claims, saying he personally visited the company’s office Friday and was told it did not have replacement lids and carts in stock.

When Hebert told the company representative that several residents have sent her videos showing trash and recycling going into the same trucks, Dixon insisted mixing waste streams are not allowed and would result in repercussions for the employees. “If you see that this is happening, we definitely want the video,” Dixon said. A source with knowledge of the company’s operations tells me that multiple cameras on Republic’s trucks would be able to confirm whether this is a persistent or ongoing problem.

LCG Public Works Director Mark Dubroc was the lone LCG voice defending the company, saying it has been responsive to his department and believes it is well-intentioned. He says the company is not in default of the contract, is paying its fines and responding to complaints. “Every business endeavor has its ebbs and flows,” Dubroc said.

“The contract is the contract that we have,” Dubroc added. “If I wrote the contract again today, I might do it a little differently, but then they might not sign it.”

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Councilwoman wants city trash contract canceled

The gist: Councilwoman Liz Hebert wants representatives from Republic Services to answer publicly for what she views as widespread problems plaguing garbage collection throughout the city and unincorporated parts of the parish. She’s requested an update from the garbage contractor at Tuesday’s council meeting and is looking into whether the contract can be canceled.

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“They are not delivering what they promised,” Hebert tells me, noting that some of her District 8 constituents have gone two to three weeks without garbage pickups. The councilwoman says she gets complaints from residents “every single day. I can’t tell you the last day I didn’t get a call or email.”

Hebert says a bigger issue for her district is that roughly half of the 26,000 residents she represents are scheduled for Friday pickups, and delays often mean they wait an entire weekend with garbage sitting outside. “It’s ridiculous,” she says.

District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque suggests missed Monday routes in his district could create problems throughout the week when Republic has to double up. “We have had nothing but complaints,” says Conque, who estimates he fields an average of one to two complaints a week but says LCG’s staff sometimes handles issues without involving him, noting that the pace of grumblings did accelerate after Tropical Storm Barry due to late storm debris collections.

It’s not just missed collections. Both council members say hydraulic fluid from Republic trucks and “leaking trash juice” are also ongoing issues (the contract allows LCG to inspect the trucks, but it’s not clear whether that’s happening), and Hebert says she’s been sent videos showing the company mixing recycling with regular trash. 

The chemicals the trucks deposit on streets can damage the asphalt, and Hebert notes at least one recent instance where Republic was forced to pay for a private street it damaged. While it’s LCG itself that collects money when the company is delinquent, charging Republic $25 a day for missed pickups (fines start on the second day), the trash contractor has even begun reimbursing residents, according to Hebert. “I have been making such a big deal about it, and the neighbors have been making such a big deal that they have gotten reimbursement,” she says.

Lafayette isn’t alone in its ongoing complaints about Republic, as Baton Rouge is also struggling with spotty service. In response to that dissatisfaction, the company last month laid out a plan to hire more workers, update its fleet and continue twice-a-week trash collection, The Advocate reported. 

Councilwoman Liz Hebert, second from right, is asking LCG’s legal department whether the trash contract with Republic Services can be canceled or non-performance.

Buyer’s remorse. Councilwoman Hebert has it. As a new councilwoman in 2016, she supported an amendment to the no-bid contract with Republic, a five-year extension to 2023 that at the time was worth $73.5 million. As part of those negotiations on a contract originally signed in 2008, Republic offered to take over curbside recycling for the current price the Recycling Foundation was charging — $2.40 per resident — on a different contract that was about to expire. The lowest bid for curbside recycling collected under the Durel administration was $5.17 a month. It was a big selling point, both council members recall. 

“Yes, I supported it back then,” Hebert says, “but knowing what I know now, that’s why I’m fighting to get the contract canceled.”

It still isn’t crystal clear the extension was legal. After the AG’s office opined in March 2018 that the extension violated state law, citing a 10-year limit on such non-exclusive franchise contracts, LCG’s attorneys in May 2018 filed a petition for declaratory judgment, asking the 15th Judicial Court to weigh in on the legality of the extension. In January, without ever scheduling a hearing, District Judge Ed Broussard signed off on a joint motion for consent judgment filed by LCG and Republic — in essence agreeing with the two parties’ own assertion that the contract was not subject to the time limitations the AG cited, court records show.

Hebert tells me she plans to ask LCG’s legal department to research whether Republic is in violation of the terms of its contract. According to LCG Environmental Codes Supervisor Russell Bourg, the Arizona-based company has only once been cited for falling below its average monthly service effectiveness rate of 99.75 percent, which is calculated quarterly per terms spelled out in the contract. Republic was fined $75,000 during last year’s first quarter, in addition to other fines it racked up — blaming problems in part on employees calling in with the “Super Bowl flu.” 

“I prepared the paperwork for [the $75,000 fine]; I don’t know if it’s been collected,” Bourg tells me, noting he turned the paperwork over to the city-parish attorney’s office. Bourg referred questions about daily fines assessed to Republic in 2018 and 2019 to Ariel Fischer in the mayor’s office. Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for those tallies. 

It’s not hard to make the case that Lafayette is paying too much and getting too little. Should Hebert get her way, there are some indications LCG could get a better price by putting the contract out for bid.

Residents in the city and unincorporated areas are paying $30.94 a month, a price that includes once-a-week trash and yard pickup ($24.37), curbside recycling ($2.63) and environmental services ($3.94). The cost of track pickup has doubled since 2000, when the city had a twice-a-week pickups and the parish once a week.

Residents in the city of Carencro, which put its curbside garbage and recycling contract out for bid last year, pay Houma-based Pelican Waste & Debris $19.30, almost $7 less than they were paying before.

Sources with knowledge of Republic’s Lafayette office say the company has been plagued by an extraordinary number of turnovers in recent months, and they believe that is at least partially to blame for the inconsistent service. 

Republic Services General Manager Steve Sytsma, who runs the local operations, did not respond to an email and text message seeking comment for this story.

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