Three Parish Council members illegally arranged votes outside of public view to make a controversial library appointment, Lafayette library advocates allege in a suit filed last week in district court.
In a culture war attracting the national spotlight, activists have collided in an unlikely arena. Meanwhile, the library system’s once sterling financial health falters.
The gist: Two library expansions and a new Northside branch may be reconsidered if the library’s property tax is not increased to offset revenue lost from declining commercial property values in the parish. The Lafayette Parish Library System stands to lose almost $750,000 in annual revenue if the Parish Council approves of Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s plan to leave it out […]
Understanding what the budget says isn’t always easy. The Current’s budget guru Geoff Daily is here to help.
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.
The gist: After a year of rancorous debate, the final fate of the library’s fund balance ended with nary a word spoken for or against it. No council discussion. No public comment. Just a silent 7-1 vote in favor of building a new northside library and expanding the North Regional Library in Carencro.
The gist: The mayor-president could not flip the votes needed to put an $18 million library fund balance transfer before voters this fall. Meanwhile, a northside library took another step toward becoming a reality.
Robideaux’s second attempt at transferring library funds collides with calls for new northside branch
The gist: On Tuesday, the council will take up the mayor-president’s renewed push to move $18 million out of the library’s fund balance to infrastructure needs. A transfer that large would likely prevent the addition of a new library east of the Evangeline Thruway.
Get caught up, quickly: Earlier this year, Robideaux introduced a proposal to transfer $18 million of the library’s $26 million unassigned fund balance to roads, bridges and drainage. The council ultimately passed an amended ballot initiative, reducing the total to $10 million — $8 million for drainage and $2 million for parks and recreation. In an April email to council members, Robideaux took aim at furniture purchases for the library’s newest branch opening in Scott this month. Reprising attacks on the library’s financial management, he has asked the council to revise the transfer back to $18 million.
The library board voted to support a northside library Monday. At a special meeting, board members decided to request budget approval from the council to build a new library on the northside. The board will also ask the council to roll forward the two millages — keep the higher millage rate in place after assessed property values increase, essentially — that support the system to offset the revenues lost by a millage renewal that failed last year. In recent weeks, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux has ramped up calls for a library east of the Evangeline Thruway. Boudreaux has lobbied to use $8 million to put a new library in his district, arguing that his community has been left without ready access to library services and is cut off from the Downtown branch by the Evangeline Thruway. In the last week, he’s pounced on library Director Teresa Elberson, saying she’s ignored his requests for more services for several years. The Scott branch, for reference, cost $7.4 million to build.
“If they’re not willing to take the money and immediately dedicate it to a library purpose for an area that needs it and for a people and a community that deserves it, I cannot support them continuing to sit on this money to do pie in the sky projects,” Boudreaux said Sunday on his Community Hour radio show. “Build the damn library.”
As it stands, the library can afford to build a new library. The library currently has $26 million in unassigned fund balance. If the amended resolution stays the same and gets approved by the public, the library will still have $16 million remaining. The library also has about $18 million in bond authority that it could use with the council’s approval.
But it’s unclear if the library will be able to afford to operate the new library. Next year the library’s revenue is projected to be approximately $2 million less than this year’s budgeted expenses, and that’s without the added cost of operating a new library on the Northside. The library’s board developed four scenarios about the future of the library’s
finances, the best of which still projects the library’s fund balance going negative in seven years.
If Robideaux gets his way, there likely won’t be a northside library. If the $18 million he wants is moved, the library won’t have enough cash to pay for the proposed library. The library still has about $18 million in bond capacity left on $40 million authorized in 2002. Selling those bonds would increase the dedicated millage collected to pay back the debt. So even if technically the library has bonds to sell, it’s not clear if there’s enough political will on the council to approve their sale.
So how does this play out from here? Council members could be swayed by Robideaux’s call to change the rededication from $10 million to $18 million. They could also change that dollar amount to something else, or alter where that money will be moved to. Or they could stick with the existing plan and leave the proposition as is.
What to watch for: First, what happens Tuesday night. Second, what happens during the budget process as it relates to council support for funding of a northside library and allowing the library to roll forward its millages. Third, what happens if some version of Robideaux’s proposal makes it to voters this fall. And fourth, what happens during next year’s property assessment; any decline would have a major impact on the library’s revenue and financial health.
The gist: In an email to council members last week, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux accused the library of overspending to furnish its new branch in Scott. He cited the expenditures in asking the council to consider increasing a $10 million fund transfer already set to appear on the ballot this fall.
Get caught up, quickly: Earlier this year Robideaux introduced a proposal to transfer $18 million of the library’s $26 million unassigned fund balance to roads, bridges and drainage. The council ultimately passed an amended ballot initiative, reducing the total to $10 million — $8 million for drainage and $2 million for parks and recreation. The public is slated to vote on the transfer in October.
Robideaux previously accused the library of illegitimately hoarding money. Now, he’s saying it is spending too freely. In January, Robideaux inaccurately claimed that the library snuck a fourth tax — the so-called “ghost millage” — onto the ballot in 2002 that allowed it to secretly collect tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The heart of the attack was that the library’s $26 million fund balance wasn’t the result of sound fiscal management but fraud. Robideaux’s latest broadside adds profligacy to the bill of particulars. “Socking away taxpayer dollars into an unspent savings account for more than 16 years insults many taxpayers,” he says in the email. “And now spending it with zero regard to price is a further insult and jeopardizes the library’s future.”
The beef here is with some furniture the library bought for the new West Regional Library in Scott. Attached to the email is an inventory of whimsical furniture — for instance, a Ford Mustang booth seat — with price tags scrawled in the margins. Here’s the list of examples he shares:
|Mustang Booth Seat||$10,587.50|
|Airplane Lounge Chair||$5,243.89|
|Lounge Chairs (2)||$2,401 each|
|Toolbox Storage Unit||$8,575|
“Some of those numbers just jumped off the page so astronomically,” says Cydra Wingerter, LCG’s communications director. “In the mayor’s office, if we were spending that level of dollars, some very serious criticism would fall on us.”
These purchases were made through LCG’s purchasing department. The inventory attached was compiled by Purchasing and Property Management, an agency house within LCG’s Office of Finance and Management. Robideaux did not reach out to the library staff or board members to question them directly about their purchases before bringing his concerns up to the council. “We followed his rules,” says library board Vice Chair Andrew Duhon. “I’m not sure why he would take issue with it.”
Robideaux says he’s acting in the library’s best interest. He argues that leaving the library with a large fund balance “could be viewed as excessive by voters,” thereby putting the library’s next millage renewal at risk. He claims he’s shining a light on all this “solely to position [the library] for successful millage renewals.”
Library officials defend the purchases, saying you get what you pay for. Library Director Teresa Elberson argues the pricing is consistent with the costs for commercial furniture, which she says tends to be more expensive because of its durability. She also points out that many of the pieces Robideaux highlights are signature pieces for the transportation theme at the West Regional library, which is located just off I-10. The facility also has a charging station for electric vehicles, the first in the parish.
“He must be clueless as to how much things cost,” says Elberson. “He doesn’t understand the price of furniture in a commercial building that’s being used by the public. You just have to reach out to a hospital, a school, a public building, they’re in the same bind we are. They pay a premium price for this type of furniture.”
Wingerter says Robideaux has not sought price comparisons for the items he flagged.
Library officials say the imaginative pieces make for a more engaging environment and rebut Robideaux’s contention that cost played no factor in the furniture choices. Elberson says the purchases were within the building’s $625,000 budget for equipment, fixtures and furniture. “This is the cost of having a great library,” says Elberson. “When you’ve got a $5 million facility you’re going to put cheap crap in it?”
The new West Regional Library in Scott opens May 14, with a ribbon cutting on May 13. The library’s next millage renewal looms in 2021. If this one fails, the library’s budget will be cut to less than half what it is this year, forcing cutbacks to services, staffing and hours.
What to watch for: Whether Robideaux’s move has any legs. Even if he or a council member puts the ordinance up to make a change, it’s unclear that the votes would be there to pass it. Robideaux would have to flip three council members on an issue that seemed more or less resolved. This will all have to happen in the next few weeks if this money transfer is to stay on the October ballot.
The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.
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.
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.
The gist: The debate over if and how to rededicate the library’s $26 million fund balance will heat back up at tonight’s council meeting.
Get caught up, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposed rededicating $18 million to roads, bridges and drainage back in January, justifying the move, in part, by suggesting the library had been collecting a secret tax — the so-called ghost millage. Spooked and confused by the ghost millage revelations, council members deferred the proposal until they could have a public discussion about these allegations. The resolution is back on the agenda to call for a public vote on May 4.
It’s too late to call a May 4 election. At a minimum, that part of the resolution will need to change. According to council chair Jared Bellard, a co-author of the resolution, LCG’s legal counsel is drafting language to make that modification, and he still hopes to pass a resolution Tuesday calling for an election.
We haven’t had any public discussion on this issue. Technically, the council did have a public discussion of the library’s financial situation in March, but it fell short of the robust conversation promised back in January. The item fell on a packed agenda, appearing alongside the controversy around mayoral aide Marcus Bruno and debate about seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the charter errors. Besides a few minutes of remarks from the library’s chair, Nora Stelly, and a member of the public, Lydia Romero, the issue got little air time. No member of the council added anything or asked any questions.
Meanwhile, the library’s board is meeting April 15. Amid all this uncertainty, the library board is trying to navigate its normal budgeting process. At this meeting, the board will be deciding on the library’s capital requirements moving forward. Part of that discussion will be figuring out just how much rededication of the fund balance library officials would support for other needs in the parish.
No one’s talking to each other. “I haven’t heard from the library at all,” Bellard tells me, adding he was unaware that the library was meeting to have this discussion next week. At the same time, Andrew Duhon, vice chair of the library’s board, says that none of the Robideaux resolution’s co-authors (Bellard, William Theriot, and Kevin Naquin) have approached the library board to better understand the institution’s finances. Duhon confirms that Robideaux sat down with the library board about his proposed resolution but not until after announcing his plan publicly.
Councilman Bruce Conque is working on a compromise proposal. When Robideaux’s proposal first came up, Conque suggested a $10 million rededication as a compromise, an idea that got informal support from library board members. That alternative option is still being worked on.
Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux wants to see a new library built on the Northside. He’s giving a press conference at 3 p.m. today in the large conference room at City Hall where he’ll be speaking about the need to build a new library in his district to make library services more accessible to his constituents, which include some of Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods. But if $18 million is taken from the library’s fund balance, it’s unlikely it would be able to build another library any time soon.
What to watch for: the fate of the library’s remaining millages. Yet another vote on the library’s finances looms on the horizon. Library officials have to renew another of their now two remaining millages by 2022. If the renewal fails, library revenue will drop by more than half — including the failed renewal in 2018 — from $13.9 million to around $6.5 million. If that were to happen, expect to see our libraries open fewer hours while offering less service.