The gist: UL Economist Gary Wagner predicts around 1% job growth for Acadiana this year, a rate that would beat statewide projections but still lag behind the nation. Speaking at The Acadiana Advocate’s Economic Summit Wednesday, Wagner was joined by a panel of business leaders optimistic about the region’s economy going forward.
Over the last year, Lafayette’s MSA has seen some of the best job growth since 2013, according to Wagner. “This recent growth is consistent with the long-run average growth in the region,” he said.
Oil and gas jobs are still down 40% since 2014. And Wagner said growth in oil and gas jobs is flat.
But healthcare has been picking up some of the slack. Wagner believes the industry will soon be the largest sector of the local economy. Oil and gas, once the largest industry in the area, is now fourth.
The biggest risk to his projections is a national recession. The U.S. economy is experiencing a record 126 consecutive months of growth, which is why there’s been a lot of talk about an inevitable recession, potentially soon. If a national recession does happen in 2020, Wagner said it would lower his projections for local job growth.
“We need to create more jobs with higher pay at a faster pace,” Wagner continued, chiming in on a discussion of his research into the causes of severe outmigration patterns in Louisiana. More than 90,000 residents have left the state over the last few years.
Business leaders are generally optimistic. “With the fall of oil and gas, we should be going down,” said John Bordelon, CEO of Home Bank. “But we’re not because of the resiliency of our people.”
Hotel/motel occupancy has been rebounding. While not fully recovered from 2014 highs, occupancy has been up in eight out of the last 11 months, according to Ben Berthelot, president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. He credited some of that growth to public investment in sports complexes in Broussard and Youngsville, which have attracted sporting events, and LCVC’s recruitment of events to this area.
There’s still hope for growth driven by Opportunity Zones. Opportunity Zones are low-income areas where special tax breaks have been designed to encourage investment in development and companies. One Acadiana President and CEO Troy Wayman cited Lafayette General Health’s fund for Oil Center investment as one example. And commercial Realtor Flo Meadows shared her belief that 2020 will be the year to watch for Opportunity Zone investments, citing $500 billion in available capital in the program nationwide.
Oil execs blamed lawsuits and warned that a slow down in Texas could hurt local companies. Art Price, CFO of Badger Oil, linked an “all-time high” in the number of suits, which seek restitution for environmental damage from decades of drilling, to depressed drilling activity in the state. While the number of oil rigs has doubled nationally since 2015, Louisiana’s share has tanked and failed to recover. Most Louisiana activity is concentrated in the Haynesville Shale and deep waters. Price also warned that a recent bonanza in Texas’ Permian Basin could cool off, potentially hurting the many Lafayette companies that have deployed personnel and equipment there. The bottom line: Price projects 2020 to be more of the same stagnation as was seen in 2019 in Lafayette’s oil and gas sector.
The gist: From the jump, the new mayor-president is moving on his campaign promises. He’s got big plans to streamline consolidated government in the face of mounting financial pressure on both the city and parish budgets. Now sworn in, along with two brand new councils, Josh Guillory promises he can do more with less.
“We face a host of challenging conversations, and we are ready,” Guillory said Monday in his inauguration remarks. He framed 2020 as a pivotal year for Lafayette Parish, saying its “future as a family-friendly, business-friendly place hangs in the balance.”
It all starts with restructuring the Public Works Department. He proposed splitting transportation and drainage off from the agency into two separate departments, each with appointed directors of their own. Guillory argues that siloing the divisions will force focus on common sore spots for the public: traffic and stormwater management. Exactly how the reorganization will work in practice remains unclear, particularly when it comes to areas where the departments would overlap. Still, the proposal moved ahead and will be up for final adoption later this month.
“I haven’t had time to study the details on how this might play out,” interim Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux, appointed this week, said in responding to questions from newly seated council members. The plan eliminates four currently vacant positions — two mechanic and two environmental inspectors — and would zero out the associate director position currently held by Terry Cordick, who will retire later this year. Guillory said the savings realized from removing those positions from the budget would free up, at minimum, $67,000 for other purposes despite the added expense of new directors. Here are the proposed new salaries:
- Transportation Director: $120,000
- Drainage Director: $108,000
- Public Works Director: $125,000
It does appear that Public Works could benefit from reorganization. Whether this particular proposal addresses the right problems within public works – including millions in infrastructure maintenance backlogs for drainage, roads and public buildings — is a separate question. One criticism of the proposal is that the most pressing issue facing the department is a lack of resources and manpower to address regular maintenance. Another is that the department is already top heavy and suffers from poor cooperation among its divisions.
“If the system was what it should be, there wouldn’t be much of an outcry,” Pam Granger, Youngsville’s city engineer, tells The Current. She sits on a transition committee convened to review Public Works and recommend changes. That committee did not produce or review the proposal introduced Tuesday night. Councilwoman Liz Hebert tells The Current she supports the administration’s proposal, but adds that she believes constituents would like to see more “boots on the ground” to shave delays on service requests; Guillory insists that the restructuring will not worsen service.
Work has also begun on reviewing the Unified Development Code. On Monday, Guillory doubled down on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” the UDC — which centralizes a number of zoning and building regulations into one place — with something more business friendly, promising to loosen regulations and tinker with processes critics say have slowed down permitting and increased costs for development. A 40-person committee, which includes many vocal critics of the UDC alongside campaign supporters of former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, Guillory’s opponent during the election, met in late December to start work. Alm-LaBar played a key role in developing the UDC while serving under the administration of Joey Durel. How much of the existing regulations remain will determine whether the UDC is truly replaced or merely tweaked.
Guillory has also promised to pursue an independent audit of LUS. Linking the effort to the internal investigation carried out by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in the latter half of 2019, Guillory committed to further vetting LUS’s financial practices. Robideaux’s inquiry surfaced accusations that LUS made millions in improper payments to LUS Fiber in an attempt to prop up the municipal telecom. Just before leaving office, Robideaux suggested Fiber’s business model isn’t working. The results of the inquiry are now in the hands of the Public Service Commission, which has limited regulatory oversight over Fiber.
Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles will remain interim directors of LUS and LUS Fiber. Robideaux appointed Duhon, then his chief administrative officer, and Miles to those positions to carry out the inquiry, at one time inaccurately claiming the leadership shakeup was linked to requests by the PSC. Questions have been raised about Duhon’s and Miles’s qualifications, along with the pay increases that accompanied the appointments. Robideaux’s rebutted concerns of LUS’s consulting engineer, retained as a bond-holder requirement, about the appointments by arguing that they were temporary and meant only for the purposes of the review. The review wrapped with the release of his report in December.
What to watch for: How the new administration works with the new councils. Robideaux was widely criticized for poor communication of his initiatives, which ultimately soured his relationship with the council and other parish elected officials.
The gist: Nearly wrapped up after three months of biweekly meetings (the every other week kind), the committee charged with smoothing Lafayette’s transition to government by two councils wrestled with the essence of consolidation: cost allocation between city and parish funds for common services. Members lamented political tension to come.
Hold up. What’s cost allocation? Glad you asked. It’s basically how LCG splits the check between city and parish money. LCG has one public works department, one planning department, one finance department, etc. But the law requires that city funds go to city services and parish funds to parish services. About two dozen accounting methods are used to determine how much each general fund — a pool of unrestricted dollars — should pony up to run the government.
“People’s salaries are charged all over the place,” LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups told the committee Tuesday. That about sums up the challenge. Cutting or adding cost from either budget — i.e. by either council — isn’t necessarily straightforward.
The big elephant. That’s what Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux called cost allocation. Essentially, observers expect that unlocking allocation is a pandora’s box for dysfunction in consolidated government. Both city and parish funds are constrained now, and adjusting allocations between two bodies could be the theater of political conflict going forward.
City taxpayers bear most of the cost of consolidation. Around 80% of shared costs are paid for by the city general fund. Since Mayor-President Joel Robideaux took office, the city’s share has increased $20 million because of changes in allocation. The parish share fell $9 million.
“It was a noble gesture to create this new form of government,” District Attorney Keith Stutes said in closing remarks. Stutes probed whether the city and parish general funds could be mixed into one account but backed away from the recommendation, instead pleading for the incoming administration and councils to find common ground. “I have to say it’s disconcerting to see that it’s devolved into a combat,” he said of city-parish budget tension. In 2016, Stutes sued LCG for not adequately funding his office, a cost on parish government mandated by the state, but later dropped it.
The committee will produce a memo of questions and recommendations. The committee meetings have often been an education in existing problems in consolidation. The transition kicked off late in the year, convened in August by Robideaux after a protracted legal battle left the charter changes in limbo. It appears the new councils will likely need their own education on how to move forward, and will do so under intensifying financial pressure. The final committee meeting is Dec. 18.
The gist: The board of a Lafayette public trust voted to front the cost of adding a new sewer pump Downtown as an intermediate fix to the district’s nagging sewer capacity problem.
Clogged up. Downtown and Lafayette’s urban core in general suffer from aging and inadequate sewer infrastructure that developers say limits their ability to add apartment complexes and townhouses. The problem is particularly acute Downtown. Longterm, LUS is working on a $7 million infrastructure upgrade that would fix the problem and then some. But that’s not fast enough to accommodate what’s believed to be immediate demand for Downtown living.
LPTFA stepped up with a stop gap. The deal calls for the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority to spend just under $1 million to build a lift pump station on Grant Street property owned by LPTFA. LUS will reimburse the trust.
“We feel it’s in the interest of Downtown for us to step up,” Rebekke Miller says. Miller is the program coordinator for LPTFA, which is in the process of building a 70-unit market rate project near Downtown.
1,800 beds. That’s the total new capacity expected to be unlocked by the lift pump, according to LUS. A 2017 market study estimated Downtown could support up to 1,110 residential units. Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud says the station would be complete by December 2020, in time to accommodate several new developments, including the old federal courthouse.
“I think you’re going to see another 200 units once [developers] see the capacity,” Begnaud says. Developers have been unable to secure financing for projects without commitments from LUS that the developments will have sewer facilities. Several smaller-scale developments are waiting in the wings behind the roughly 200 units of new housing currently underway.
Why this matters. Downtown has been stuck in a development quagmire for years while advocates clamor to bring urban living to Lafayette. This year, employer announcements — Waitr and CGI — stoked optimism for a boom. But infrastructure limitations remain an obstacle. Downtown officials are pushing to create a new sales tax district to finance infrastructure improvements, which the City-Parish Council will vote on Dec. 17.
The gist: Hardline conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana, which began life as a Facebook gadfly, attracted several incoming officials, including the mayor-president-elect, to a fundraiser and social gathering last week.
Five incoming councilmembers and the mayor-president-elect appeared. Michael Lunsford, Citizens’ executive director and the organization’s front man, says 60 attendees showed up for a social affair that spilled out of his office Downtown, in the refurbished Gordon Hotel building on Jefferson Street. The event was ticketed with a suggested donation of $150. Josh Guillory gave a short speech in a relatively brief appearance, according to Lunsford. During the campaign, Citizens called into question Guillory’s conservative bonafides and authenticity.
Lunsford outlined a vision for growing the organization in remarks to supporters. He has added a part-time staffer to help with administration, and he intends to take on issues in neighboring parishes, with the long-term vision of replicating the Citizens “model” around the state. Lunsford himself does the bulk of the work, along with what he describes as a network of volunteers. He indicated some growing financial support, but declined to give figures. In 2018, Citizens took in $130,132, mostly from six unidentified contributors, according to a public tax filing provided by Lunsford.
Council members say they were getting to know their constituents. Democratic Councilman Pat Lewis, an incumbent and the only incoming city councilman to appear, couched his interest as not one of support but of an open mind. Incoming parish Councilman John Guilbeau, a Republican, acknowledged the group’s controversy and lamented growing political strife in Lafayette Parish. Guilbeau described Citizens’ work as well-intentioned if overheated.
“Let’s stop this damn divisiveness,” Guilbeau says, conceding Citizens’ reputation. Guilbeau was one of four incoming parish council members who appeared. “But it goes both ways. Sometimes their rhetoric or information is a little sketchy.”
Citizens has been rebuked for divisiveness and misinformation, and at one time was the subject of a state ethics investigation. Sparked by a complaint filed anonymously to the board, the investigation sought out whether Citizens received contributions specifically to pay for a 2018 ad campaign overtly opposing a tax renewal for the parish library system and failed to disclose its donors. Citizens’ nonprofit structure doesn’t require releasing information about donors, but funds directly related to political activity would be subject to campaign finance disclosure. Lunsford’s group filed finance reports with the ethics board, claiming expenses related to that political campaign but listed itself as the only donor. The Current reported the investigation on Sept. 11 after obtaining court records related to it, which are typically confidential. The Louisiana Board of Ethics decided not to pursue the matter a month later and closed the file, saying in a letter addressed to Citizens’ attorney that the board had found “no evidence” that Citizens received money requiring campaign disclosures.
“They reviewed the facts and they found us in compliance, which we knew we would be,” Lunsford says, calling the underlying allegations in the anonymous ethics complaint “a bunch of hooey.”
Even council members who took fire from Citizens RSVP’d. Councilwoman Nanette Cook, who is currently on the consolidated council and beat out a candidate more closely aligned with Citizens for her incoming seat on the city council, says she wanted to hear what Guillory had to say — a rare opportunity for an audience with a busy public official. (Lunsford says Guillory rehashed campaign talking points. A request for comment from Guillory was not returned.) Cook and fellow incumbent councilmember Kevin Naquin, headed for the parish council, were at one point advertised as confirmed guests but were unable to attend. Both have taken shots from Citizens.
“We have a new government, and regardless of what they think of me, I’m ready to get on board and move this community forward,” Cook says. She anticipates blowback on her support for six economic development districts before the council Dec. 17. Lunsford will sit on a panel Wednesday evening organized in opposition to the districts. “We don’t really agree on a lot of things,” Cook says.
Why this matters. Citizens has been near the center of big local controversies, most prominently digging in on major tax propositions, often with misleading information, and stoking intolerant outrage on lightning-rod social issues. Now, with a shingle hung Downtown, it’s become a brick and mortar organization that attracts attention from local officials.
UL’s watershed center engaged to complete Vermilion River dredging study; report expected in January
The gist: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has contracted UL’s Watershed Flood Center to model the effect of dredging the Vermilion River. This would complete a long-awaited study — at one time expected to be finished at year’s end — that will determine the benefits and risks of digging out years of accumulated mud and debris that have shallowed […]
Pamplona Tapas Bar is importing a cocktail popup series — literally called Miracle — to toast the holidays.
The 2019 election season is officially under wraps, showcasing hard-fought campaigns and matched enthusiasm among voters. Here’s a breakdown of the results.
The gist: Six new economic development districts passed introduction Tuesday by the City-Parish Council, in a rush of legislation on the council’s waning agenda for the year. The districts would levy new sales and hotel taxes to make improvements advocates say would spark economic activity in areas that need it. A vote on final adoption is set in December.
Here are the six districts: Downtown, University Gateway, Trappey Riverfront Development along the Vermilion River, Northway District anchored by Northgate Mall, Holy Rosary Institute and the Acadiana Mall.
Taxes would be confined to district boundaries. The districts propose different tax rates and sunsets — varying between 1% and 2% sales and 1% and 2% hotel occupancy — but follow more or less the same structure. Council members — for the time being, from the City-Parish Council — will serve as each district’s governors, with the power to levy taxes, and will enter a cooperative endeavor agreement with private or public entities and the city of Lafayette.
Half of the districts are on the northside. The area has long been in decline. Advocates argue consolidated government has not prioritized infrastructure and economic development needs on that side of town. Proponents view the districts as essential tools for bootstrapping prosperity. Rehabbing and redeveloping blighted property, streetscaping and land acquisition are on all three northside district lists. The Holy Rosary district prioritizes repairs of the historic school itself, construction of an African-American heritage museum and building a medical clinic.
“We know we need economic development on the Northside,” said Ravis Martinez, part of a private development linked to the Northgate Mall district, in remarks Tuesday night. “When are we going to invest on the Northside of Lafayette? When are we going to take a hard look at ourselves, a hard look at the big box facilities and stores moving out? What are we going to do for the Northside of town?”
Downtown advocates say they need the money. A lack of sewer capacity Downtown has choked the district’s ability to attract residential development. LUS rolled out a multimillion dollar sewer infrastructure upgrade intended to address the problem, but it won’t be complete for several years. Anita Begnaud, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority, tells The Current the district will give Downtown some independence in getting basic and necessary infrastructure in place.
“People want to develop here. The reality is nobody can get a bank to give them $1 million upfront to build a lift station,” Begnaud says. “Something’s got to be done to lift that hurdle.”
The districts’ boundaries exclude registered voters. This is a common practice in drafting economic development districts. Without registered voters in the districts, the governing authority can levy taxes without a general election that would otherwise be required to be held for the voters within the districts. In Downtown’s case, drawing the district this way makes for a patchwork map that excludes addresses with registered voters associated. In some cases, people use commercial properties as their registered address, which then excludes those businesses from the district.
“Almost every EDD is created on a greenfield site where there are not registered voters,” Begnaud says.
Critics take issue with the bundling of several districts at the tail end of an outgoing government. On top of the question of timing, there has been fierce ideological opposition to this financing approach, particularly among staunch conservatives who view the mechanism as a form of crony capitalism and a distortion of the free market.
“This is all new in Lafayette, and it’s moving awfully fast,” said Councilman William Theriot, one of only two votes against establishing the districts, joined by fellow conservative council member Jared Bellard. Bellard and Theriot have both consistently opposed the financing strategy — often broadly referred to as tax increment financing districts or TIFs. Councilwoman Liz Hebert moved to defer the batch of ordinances carrying the districts until next year but was voted down by advocates urging immediate action.
Lafayette has experimented with economic development districts before. The Target-anchored shopping center on Louisiana Avenue was built using a similar financing strategy. Proponents touted the development’s success as a proof of concept Tuesday night, arguing it should be put to good use within Lafayette’s urban core.
What’s next? Should the districts pass final adoption in December, their governing boards — effectively the members of the City-Parish Council and, later, the City Council — would have to approve levying the proposed taxes. That means Dec. 17 isn’t necessarily the final stop. Council members could create the districts and approve the CEAs but punt levying the taxes to the City Council. Based on the conversation Tuesday, there was little appetite for waiting.
The gist: The City-Parish Council approved pay raises for the fire department, public employees, and the marshal’s office Tuesday. In total, these raises increase annual expenses for the city general fund by $3.7 million and the parish general fund by another $60,000. Without offsetting revenue gains or cuts to expenses, both the city and parish general funds are projected to go broke in the next few years.
Get caught up quickly: Earlier this month the council approved $3.8 million in raises for the Lafayette Police Department. Combined with funds approved Tuesday for city employees, the city general fund is projected to have to tap into more than $18 million of its $45 million fund balance over the next fiscal year. If nothing else changes, that puts the city general fund on track to go broke by 2023, according to numbers provided by LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups. Parish general expenses will only increase $60,000, but that will reduce its projected fund balance by 60% and put it in the red by 2021.
No one questioned that these raises are warranted. While none of the votes to approve these raises were unanimous, not a single member of the public or council or the administration argued against the merits of giving them. Interim City Marshal C. Michael Hill went so far as to suggest that the pay increases for his deputies weren’t even raises. That’s because they hadn’t received pay increases in four years, yet their costs for expenses like health insurance premiums had gone up. So that means their take home pay has actually been decreasing over the last four years.
But there was no discussion about how to pay for these increased expenses. At the Nov. 5 meeting, Councilman Jared Bellard introduced a measure to eliminate all budgeted but vacant positions to free up money for raises for first responders, but the measure was deferred until the next meeting on Dec. 3. Approving these raises, the last consolidated council has set the next city and parish councils on a difficult path for their first term.
And there still might be one more raise to come. The only dissenting voice on the matter of giving raises to LCG’s civil service employees was City Judge Doug Saloom. While he didn’t speak out against giving these raises, he instead argued that his 36 employees shouldn’t be left out just because they work under the judicial system. He was encouraged to submit an introductory resolution by today’s noon deadline to get onto the agenda for the next council meeting and indicated he planned to do so. Given the number of employees, though, any additional expenses incurred by giving these raises should be modest relative to the size of the financial challenges now facing the city’s budget.
What to watch for: Just how bloody next year’s budget cycle looks like for both the city and the parish. The parish has already cut budgets year after year, struggling to maintain even a $100,000 balance in its general fund. Now there will be even less room to maneuver with these increased expenses. The city was projected to tap into its general fund to maintain baseline operations for the next few years before the pay raises were added. Now the city general fund will be projected to fall below the 20% minimum fund balance set by LCG’s fiscal policy by 2021 and be completely zeroed out by 2023. Given that neither the parish nor city general fund balance can legally go below zero, more cuts are likely coming.
The gist: Outgoing officials want to go out with a bang. Tuesday’s council meeting, one of the last of the year, is chockablock with major initiatives. On the table: the LUS inquiry, more pay raises and six new taxing districts, one of which would finance developing a river walk on the Vermilion.
Robideaux opens the books on his LUS inquiry
At a special meeting of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will unpack the findings of his ongoing inquiry into alleged improper payments at LUS Fiber. Robideaux intimated in an email last week that he would unseal interviews with LUS and Fiber staffers conducted by LCG lawyers. LPUA meetings are held at 4:30 p.m inside city hall.
Get caught up, quickly. LUS and LUS Fiber have been under fire for a pair of potential violations of a state law that prohibits government dollars from propping up the municipal telecom. The most recent of the two, $8 million paid over eight years for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by Robideaux in July. In October, Robideaux announced he was removing LUS and Fiber’s interim directors, claiming the swap was made to “facilitate an internal review on behalf of the Public Service Commission,” and connected the review to the power outage monitoring payments. The PSC denies any involvement and has distanced itself from Robideaux’s attempts to link his efforts to its limited oversight. The controversy spurred terse exchanges between Robideaux and Councilman Jay Castille.
$3.7 million in new pay raises up for final adoption
Earlier this month, the council approved $3.8 million in new raises for city police; now it’s got three more raises to consider:
- $2.6 million for Lafayette Fire Department
- $1.1 million for all other LCG employees
- $137,000 for the city marshal’s office
If all of these raises get approved and these increases aren’t offset elsewhere in the budget, the city’s formerly flush general fund will be depleted in very short order. A proposal to eliminate currently vacant positions from the budget, in a bid to free up dollars for the pay raises, is also up for final adoption.
Six new taxing districts proposed, including one for a riverwalk
Robideaux has proposed setting up six new economic development districts that would levy 1% sales and 2% hotel occupancy taxes in each tax increment financing district to pay for infrastructure meant to spur development. The ordinances include cooperative endeavor agreements with various public and private partners. One proposal would create a TIF district to finance the development of a riverwalk promenade along the Vermilion near the old Trappey’s canning plant. The measures are up for introduction and would not be up for final vote until December. Here’s the list:
- Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District
CEA with Downtown Development Authority
- University Gateway Economic Development District
CEA with Townfolk Inc., and Oasis Community Coterie
- Trappey Economic Development District
CEA with Trappey Riverfront Development LLC
- Northway Economic Development District
CEA with Pride Opportunity Development Developers
- Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District
CEA with Holy Rosary Redevelopment
- Acadiana Mall Economic Development District
No partner identified
EDDs are special taxing districts where additional taxes or fees are collected, and that money is then dedicated to projects benefiting those districts.
Girard Park Drive rezoning for new apartments
The rezoning will allow for the construction of a 140-unit apartment and office complex by Lafayette General. The rezoning has already received significant pushback from nearby neighbors who say a development of this size will hurt the character of their neighborhood. The zoning commission voted against recommending the changes.
This op-ed is a one of two letters written in support of candidates for mayor-president and does not reflect the editorial opinion of The Current or its staff. You can read Youngsville City Councilman Ken Stansbury’s closing argument supporting Josh Guillory here. When I vote to send someone to Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C., to represent me, I want a […]