The elephant in the room is how much longer this damn pandemic will last and who will be left standing when it finally ends. But that’s not the only aspect of our local economy with an uncertain fate.
Council Preview 1/5 — Lafayette surveillance cameras, more CARES Act funding, conditional pay raises for city marshal’s office, board and commission seats
The gist: After a holiday hiatus, the work of consolidated government resumes with a pair of relatively light agendas. On tap: electing officers, budgeting CARES Act funding and getting answers on a surveillance camera contract awarded to a private firm without council approval.
The contract licenses Lafayette police to use the camera footage for “law enforcement purposes” only but appears to place no such restriction on the firm, which will own, maintain and operate the cameras — and the data it collects.
As far as legalese goes, the ballot language on these “rededications” is about as bad as it gets. Fear not. We’ve got it translated to plain English.
The gist: Preserving CREATE was an uphill battle for supporters who staged a social media campaign to urge “no” votes on a ballot proposition to rededicate the property tax that supports the cultural economy initiative. While CREATE was generally thought to be more popular inside city limits than elsewhere in the parish, the rededication push won out decisively across the entire parish.
Parish and city precincts voted “yes” at about the same clip, says Christie Maloyed, a professor of political science at UL. The rededication was supported by 52% of city voters — in effect ending CREATE — compared with 55% of voters elsewhere in the parish. It’s hard to get a clean picture of the breakdown because of the huge turnout of early voters, which are reported without precinct data. But 58% of early voters supported the rededication, which split the $500,000 property tax in two to pay for rural fire protection, and parish roads, bridges and drainage.
“Anyway you slice it, it looks like a rare point of consensus between the city and the parish,” Maloyed says.
It’s not uncommon for city voters to behave differently than elsewhere in the parish. A 2018 tax renewal supporting the parish library system was pushed through by overwhelming support from parish voters, while voters in city limits voted to keep the tax in place. The ill-fated school sales tax in 2017 was walloped by parish voters, but city voters broke at higher numbers for the tax. At least a narrow majority of city voters backed Carlee Alm-LaBar over Mayor-President Josh Guillory in 2019. A handful of precincts that straddle city limits throws a little uncertainty into the math. But the sense that city voters and parish voters had different priorities was a key driver of the Fix the Charter campaign that successfully created separate city and parish councils.
CREATE was born into controversy. Former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux tacked the measure onto a drainage tax, outraging many voters who felt coerced into supporting the cultural economy tax. Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin, who advocated for the rededication, says his constituents didn’t reap the benefits of the program and watched it accumulate a fund balance while parish money problems mounted.
“They’re paying for CREATE and they don’t have anything that’s benefiting from it,” Naquin says. That view inverts a refrain among CREATE supporters that the rededication would tax residents across the parish to pay for a service that only benefits unincorporated Lafayette, two years after voters there defeated a new tax proposed to pay for rural fire service. CREATE did fund some recreation projects in parish parks, but the initiative moved little money on the whole, not just outside city limits.
Saving the CREATE tax may not have saved CREATE. Guillory campaigned on shifting public dollars out of cultural investments, taking particular aim at CREATE. Once he was in office, the program was mothballed and Kate Durio, a Robideaux assistant who ran the initiative, left the administration. Guillory resisted calls to use the $890,000 accumulated in CREATE’s fund balance to plug budget holes that supported signature cultural programs like the Heymann Performing Arts Center and the Lafayette Science Museum. Ultimately, the councils and the administration agreed to use $300,000 in CREATE dollars to soften the budgetary blow on the science museum, which faced insolvency when Guillory stripped it of city funding.
“I honestly take comfort in the fact that [Guillory] doesn’t have that money to waste,” Durio says. From her vantage point, the odds of survival were stacked against the program, which she maintains was still in its infancy. Faced with a hardening political message in local government that culture and recreation are not worth funding with public dollars, CREATE was swimming upstream, she says. Durio mostly expected the result.
“I’m surprised that many people voted ‘no,’” she says.
What happens now? Seventy percent of the CREATE millage will now fund rural fire protection. The other 30% will chip away at a parish infrastructure backlog in the tens of millions of dollars. About $500,000 of the CREATE balance remains, Parish Councilman Josh Carlson says, and there are no immediate plans for what to do with it. Naquin, meanwhile, is on a mission to shore up parish finances overall. He tabled a measure to propose a small parishwide sales tax to help parish government claw its way into financial stability. Naquin argues the funding pulled from CREATE, while small, will make a meaningful difference in improving fire ratings in the unincorporated areas. Both Naquin, a musician, and Carlson, who served on the Heymann Center board, push back on the assertion that ending CREATE is an assault on the arts. Given the dire financial situation in the parish budget, Carlson says, every bit counts.
“No, this doesn’t solve everything. But $500,000 goes a long way when there is very little money to begin with,” Carlson says.
What to watch for? Whether private dollars do step in where public investment recedes. Guillory telegraphed a shift away from government funding for cultural programs, signing a pledge with arch-conservative backers to carve “nonessential” spending out of the budget, and that goes well beyond CREATE. But with the economy still broadly depressed by the pandemic, private dollars may not be able to pick up the tab.
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.