The mayor-president believes Lafayette is in its best financial position ever. His optimism overlooks flatlining property tax revenue.
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.
On Monday, NextGen withdrew their offer to manage LUS hours before the Council voted against considering any deal like it. So now what?
On Nov. 6th we vote on whether to increase taxes for our parish courthouse and jail or instead to maintain the status quo. But the status quo is broken. Here’s why.
In the upcoming fiscal year the city general fund will bring in just over $100 million and end the year with a fund balance of almost $40 million. The parish general fund will bring in less than $12 million and end the year with a fund balance of about $100,000.
▸ The gist: Resignations and reorganization have combined to open four director level positions for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to fill, including some that have been vacant since the beginning of the year. In the coming months, Robideaux will need to appoint replacement directors for planning, information services and technology and, if his restructuring proposal goes forward, separate directors for LUS and LUS Fiber.
▸ Top billing: Robideaux faces a generational decision at LUS. As if replacing outgoing Director Terry Huval, who served four administrations as LUS's top exec over three decades, wasn't enough, Robideaux has proposed splitting Huval's job in two in this year's budget, cleaving off LUS Fiber into its own separate department. Huval announced his retirement in April shortly after the mayor revealed to him privately his intentions to split off Fiber. Huval ultimately resigned early, reportedly in response to public revelations of Robideaux's consideration of monetizing the electric system.
▸ Taking his time: Robideaux's proven to be a deliberative executive, taking several months to fill top positions in his administration when vacated. Information services has not had a permanent director since Robideaux took office in 2016; instead, two successive interim directors have overseen the department. Robideaux took a year to replace outgoing Police Chief Jim Craft, a Joey Durel appointee, with current chief Toby Aguillard, who took over in November 2016. Mark Dubroc succeeded interim Public Works Director Tom Carroll three months after Carroll's March 2017 announcement that he would leave the provisional post within a couple of months. Former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar gave notice of her resignation in May and officially stepped down in June. Her position is currently held by an interim director.
▸ What to watch for: The search to replace Terry Huval, how long it takes and how it interacts with potential private management of the electric division. It's clear the delay in starting the search was related to Robideaux's decision to reorganize LUS and Fiber and possibly connected to his talk to privatize the city's electric company. He's not going to announce positions that don't yet exist. Arguably the clock starts upon the council's approval of the upcoming budget.
Dividing LUS and Fiber is not a new idea. Some argue that Fiber deserves a full-time director to run effectively. And indeed, Robideaux pointed to Fiber's $1.7 million overcharge of LUS, which triggered an audit, as evidence of the need for separate directors in his remarks to the council. But a challenge here will be attracting talent at lower pay. Robideaux proposes paying the utilities director $150,000 and the Fiber director $115,000. Combined, the two salaries exceed Huval's salary of $256,000. Meanwhile, Robideaux has called for a transformative review of LUS's future, saying the community will need to reckon with major changes in the 120-year-old utility. He'll demand innovative thinking, it seems, but the pay may not attract the talent up for the challenge.
For what it's worth, comparable utilities director positions in Chattanooga, Tenn., (combined telecommunications and power oversight) and Lincoln, Neb., (power utility only) pull down more than $350,000 in annual payment. Both of those positions, however, oversee larger operating budgets. The current operating revenue for LUS is around $250 million and Fiber around $40 million.
Robideaux has less than two years left in his first term in office. That presents an odd deadline: Any incoming director, particularly one answering a national search, would have to stomach the possibility of a change of administration less than two years into being installed. The longer Robideaux waits, the heavier that factor weighs.
▸ The gist: Longtime Cajundome Director Greg Davis didn't think it was right that he hold onto his $160,000 a year job while having to deliver news to seven other employees that their positions were being eliminated. So the 63-year-old, who has worked for the Cajundome since it opened in 1985 — 25 years as director — announced he'll retire at the end of October, three years earlier than he'd planned.
▸ His second in command, Pam Deville, was elevated to director, a move that alone will cut $120,000 in salary expenses. In all, Davis' plan will save the struggling venue half a million dollars, a figure that represents a 13 percent reduction from the $3.8 million it spent on payroll (including taxes and benefits) in 2018. The venue's annual operating budget is $7.8 million.
The drastic steps were prompted by a $400,000 deficit for the current fiscal year, a number that for the first time exceeds the operating subsidy paid by Lafayette Consolidated Government to prop up the entertainment venue. That subsidy, $392,000, was cut to $376,000 for next fiscal year; in recent years it was as much as $500,000, and at times — like at the height of the IceGators' popularity— has been zero (another $100,000 LCG provides annually can't be used for operations). Davis says a study by LEDA concluded that the the subsidy averaged $358,000 annually for the first 30 years of the Cajundome's existence.
"I'd been looking at this [financial situation] for at least four to six months," Davis says, explaining that he was holding out hope a couple more concerts would be booked in the current year. That didn't happen. And concerts are where the money is.
▸ It's the economy, stupid. While Lafayette's economy may be showing signs of stabilization in the aftermath of the hit it took from low oil prices and resulting job losses, concert promoters seem to think we're still suffering too much to take a chance on us, Davis suggests. "I think we're going to overcome it. We're going to book more concerts. You book the right concert in this market, and it will do well." Case in point: the Garth Brooks series, which accounted for five of the eight concerts the Cajundome hosted last fiscal year. Brooks alone sent $217,400 directly to the Cajundome's bottom line from ticket and suite sales, concessions and merchandise. Eight concerts, which is the Cajundome's average, were enough to finish last year in the black, the six booked this fiscal year were not. In past years, the venue has hosted as many as 10-12 concerts.
Davis is leaving the Cajundome in competent hands and in great physical condition, the result of a $21 million renovation completed in December 2016. That capital improvement (and the construction of the convention center) was funded by a bond sale backed by the Lafayette Parish hotel-motel tax the state rebates to the venue, money that can be used for capital improvements and maintenance but not for operations.
▸ What's next for Davis? The community activist and lifelong North Lafayette resident plans to continue devoting much of his attention to education reform, specifically reversing the mindset that black children, especially poor black children, are incapable of excelling academically. He's on the board of TM Landry College Prep, which is moving from Breaux Bridge to Lafayette in September, taking over the former call center at Northgate Mall. "TM Landry is ... a walking contradiction to that belief," Davis says. "It's going to provide outstanding examples of black children who are achieving at high academic levels to overcome this myth that because of the color of your skin and because you are poor, that you are not capable of high achievement."
Marshal Pope’s defense strategy in jeopardy A U.S. district court ruling could ultimately hamper a key legal maneuver in the Lafayette city marshal's pending criminal trial.
A U.S. district court ruling could ultimately hamper a key legal strategy in Marshal Brian Pope’s pending criminal trial.