Lafayette

COLUMN: Parish government isn’t ‘living within its means’

Parish government has been on life support for years now. With the city’s finances now strained, it’s time for the parish to get serious about living within its means.

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Living through Covid in Louisiana French

In interviews with Cajun elders, UL archivists explore the experience and expression of the pandemic in Louisiana French.

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Louisiana’s emergency hotel shelters have stopped taking in new households

The gist: Hundreds of unhoused families, including children, have moved into hotel rooms serving as de facto shelters since April. State housing officials have asked regional partners to stop taking more into shelters, signaling that the program is likely to end soon, leaving many without anywhere else to go. 

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341 Acadiana households are living in hotel shelters, the highest manifest in the state. The New Orleans area is second on the state’s list with 288. Last week, the Louisiana Housing Corporation asked housing agencies to stop offering new 30-day vouchers for people seeking shelter, according to Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition for Housing and Homelessness. LHC has not made any formal declaration ending the program. But Rachal says stopping new admissions shows the writing is on the wall; it’s just not clear when the program will end altogether. 

“We’re going to need a lot more places for people to rent. And we’ll need them available immediately,” Rachal says. 

LHC did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Louisiana cities, armed with larger funds for housing assistance, began moving families into more permanent housing earlier. But in Acadiana, a lack of available rental assistance and housing within a reachable price range has slowed the transition

Funding and speed is a big problem. Moving hundreds of families into housing is a big undertaking, and funding is moving slowly across the board, even as it’s been outstripped by demand. The first phase of LHC’s rental relief program ran out of money in less than 24 hours, its site flooded by 40,000 applications. 

Delays and uncertainty are problematic for the hotel partners, too. Since taking over funding the hotel shelter program, LHC has fallen behind on payments to hotel owners. One owner in Lafayette, who has kept dozens of people in his remodeled hotel on the Evangeline Thruway since April, says LHC is two months behind. He’s offered a discounted rate to the state housing corporation — which will be reimbursed by FEMA — but the cash flow represents a lifeline for his business. 

“If this is the final week, that would be a disaster,” says Harvey Patel, the hotel owner. “If this is the final month, then we’ll have some time to organize ourselves and get things going.” 

Dozens have been turned away for lack of options. Rachal estimates between 50 and 70 unhoused people are without any shelter. By this fall, with no changes, Rachal expects that number to climb to 100 and to be measured in hundreds by Christmas.

As rec center fury grows, budget conflicts brew for Lafayette’s new government

Lafayette’s recently separated councils fell into the early makings of a constitutional impasse, only months into the new form of government.

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Guillory cuts deep with his first budget proposal, citing Covid and matching campaign platform

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.

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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.

How to plan a performing arts season during a pandemic — Q&A with AcA’s Clayton Shelvin

AcA’s talent buyer talks the challenges of planning for the unexpected and how to attack the notion of the performing arts as a “white space.”

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Savings unknown in decision to shutter park centers on Lafayette’s Northside; so are the costs

Hopping the fence to sneak into the old Heymann Park pool as a kid, Parish Councilman AB Rubin got caught by park police. Decades later he still has a scar under his beard from nicking his cheek, and a parking lot has paved over the pool that was once a fixture of social life in Lafayette’s McComb-Veazey neighborhood. Smiling, Rubin […]

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Council Preview: Budget cuts, tax breaks, Mouton statue — and the possible return of scooters

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.

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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.

Renters are projected to need a lot more help than Louisiana is giving them

The gist: Offered as relief, the governor’s emergency rent assistance program has met little celebration from housing advocates, who are wary that the $24 million set aside is a pittance compared with the volume of estimated need. Housing advocates say avoiding a wave of housing instability in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, will cost at least 10 times what the state has cobbled together. 

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Up front, the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance program will launch with $7 million and grow to collect $24 million in federal housing funds. The program will be centralized and managed by the Louisiana Housing Corporation. An income cap of $25,450 limits the program to the very poor. Louisiana’s median income is around $48,000.

A report circulated by housing advocates estimates Louisiana renters need $250 million through the end of the year. Metro Lafayette alone, according to that same calculation, would need more than twice what’s been offered by the program, and little money has been offered up locally. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to authorize $200,000 in local rent and utility relief. 

“It’s like trying to soak up an oil spill with a paper towel,” says Leigh Rachal, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, of the resources thrown at housing so far. Her comments echo official statements from statewide organizations like HousingLouisiana, which issued a press release applauding the thought behind the program but questioning the effort. A $15 million program in Houston ran out of money in two hours. 

Critics further point out the billions in federal assistance handed out to small businesses in Louisiana alone. Around $8 billion flowed into Louisiana’s small businesses via the CARES Act, the multi-trillion dollar stimulus stood up in a scramble by Congress to prop up the American economy as joblessness soared. Businesses in Lafayette Parish collected $600 million in forgivable federal loans valued at $150,000 or more through that program. The Louisiana Legislature authorized another $300 million for its own Main Street Recovery Act. And Lafayette Consolidated Government opened a $1 million small business grant program with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Housing advocates continue to warn of a coming wave of evictions. Legal proceedings on evictions in Louisiana resumed in June, the first shoe to drop. But the looming July 25 end of a federal moratorium on evictions has advocates in suspense. Expanded unemployment benefits will end July 31, days after the eviction protections are lifted for many of Louisiana’s 600,000 renter households. And, to be sure, many mortgage holders could be in trouble too as incomes decline and mortgage relief dries up. 

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we knew that if we could find a solution” it would take a while to make it work, Rachal says. Rent programs based on federal dollars are notoriously slow, suggesting that even as applicants flock to the rent program’s website or blow up 211 for help, the money won’t come quickly for them, both gumming up the flow of relief and — in the worst cases — arriving too little, too late. 

Evictions have been abnormally low in Lafayette. The City Court docket has held steady at 30 filings per week since the eviction stay was lifted in June. Pre-Covid levels averaged around 60 evictions per week, according to City Court Chief Judge Doug Saloom. “I hold out the hope that those numbers don’t escalate,” Saloom says. 

It feels like a calm before the storm. The dire predictions from housing advocates are premised on sustained, high levels of unemployment. While ticking down, unemployment figures have remained stubbornly high, suggesting the astronomical costs of need worrying housing advocates aren’t so far fetched. Even at half the value projected, the scale would be historic. Louisiana has 312,000 continued unemployment claims, posting a small decline last week. The Acadiana region bucked the trend, bumping slightly up to just more than 36,000 claims. 

The early signs are there. More than 320 households, including many with children, are in hotel rooms secured as emergency housing by ARCH, Rachal says, and the number is rising. Beyond people showing up for help, advocates can’t see beyond the horizon to what’s coming. It’s unclear exactly how many people live in housing currently protected by the federal eviction moratorium, which covers any domicile that receives federal dollars — by voucher, mortgage backing or tax credit. Whatever that figure, it’s likely to dwarf the number that were covered by the state’s moratorium only. 

“I have a lot of concern that people might think that’s solved now,” Rachal says of the message the rental program sends. “And it’s not.”

Readers asked about masks, reinfection, Florida and quarantining; Here’s what how the experts responded

There isn’t evidence that masks are unsafe. Lafayette is about as unsafe as Florida. Did they mention you should wear a mask?

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BVD Commissioners resign in dramatic flare-up over proposed George Floyd statement

A message of unity ran into procedural roadblocks put up by the now-departed commissioners, culminating with a contentious June meeting marked with irate outbursts.

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Coronavirus Updates: Louisiana staying in Phase 2; ‘We all need to do a better job’

The gist: In light of growing cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Edwards announced Monday he will not move Louisiana to the next phase of reopening. Rebounds across the state — and in Acadiana in particular — have frustrated the state’s efforts to keep the curve and forced the pause.

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