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Costly upgrades could spell retirement or conversion of LUS’s coal plant

The gist: For the first time in its history, Lafayette’s publicly owned utility opened its doors to public involvement in how it plans for the city’s power needs, a process called an integrated resource plan, or IRP. A big decision before LUS and its customer-owners: what to do with its coal-fired power plant. 

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We own a coal plant? Yes, you do. Well, technically you co-own it with CLECO. The plant, called Rodemacher 2, is located in central Louisiana and accounts for 265 megawatts of the LUS power portfolio. The plant was built in the 1980s and has taken on millions in upgrades to keep pace with regulatory changes. 

“I think the unit will be converted to natural gas or retired,” LUS Power Manager Jeff Stewart said at a Tuesday public hearing to a crowd of two dozen attendees, including several renewable energy and environmental advocates who have criticized the system’s lack of public involvement and continued investment in its coal plan. 

Consultants estimate $43 million in new upgrades are needed. The investment would update the aging coal plant to comply with federal environmental regulations governing water discharges and emissions. Michael Borgstadt of Burns and McDonnell, the consulting engineer guiding the IRP process, said new revisions to those rules were released in early November, which could affect the price tag. How much, exactly, is unknown, though he said costs shouldn’t vary greatly from those currently anticipated. 

LUS still owes $50 million on compliance investments made in 2012. The system issued bonds to pay for upgrades on Rodemacher needed to comply with emission standards issued by the Obama administration. At the time, critics called for the system to be retired or converted to cleaner-burning natural gas. LUS opted to stick with coal, but natural gas prices bottomed out in the fracking boom. The system now faces more costs to keep the unit in compliance while natural gas prices remain historically cheap.

“We have an opportunity to make decisions that have a positive impact,” said Laura McColm, a Lafayette resident and LUS customer, at the Tuesday hearing. McColm, like other attendees, urged LUS and its consultants to consider the costs associated with pollution and be wary of making big, risky investments that cost ratepayers for years. By and large, participants were upbeat about the chance to give feedback and engaged in a lively discussion with Stewart and the consultants on hand. 

A 2016 IRP resulted in plans to build new power generation that was later scuttled. LUS then took criticism for a lack of transparency in conducting the power plan — also led by Burns and McDonnell — which ultimately resulted in a $120 million plan to build new power supply powered by natural gas. Rates were raised 9% to pay for a $250 million bond sale that included the new power plants, but the City-Parish Council voted not to go forward with the plan. 

With power planning, LUS is shooting at a moving target. Market conditions in the power industry are in turmoil because of constant regulatory changes, new technologies and shifting fuel costs. The Obama- era Clean Power Plan likely would have forced the retirement of the coal plant, Stewart tells me, but current rules have eased the pressure on coal plants broadly. Still, coal is on its way out. 

“We’ve known for years that coal would be a target,” Stewart says. “[Rodemacher] could be a good retirement in terms of economics.” 

What to watch for: More opportunities for public input. Stewart expects another hearing by spring of next year. LUS has made available other channels to give feedback on the IRP. The plan is set to wrap up by summer of next year. It will be up to LUS and the City Council — which is replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority as LUS’s regulator — to decide what to do with the results. Ratepayers can submit feedback by email to IRPfeedback@lus.org. The deadline for public comment on this phase is December 15, 2019.

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Robideaux’s LUS, Fiber management shakeup was not prompted by Public Service Commission

The gist: Changes to LUS and LUS Fiber leadership, announced suddenly the night before October’s primary, were said by the Robideaux administration to be tied to an ongoing internal review of transactions between the systems that was requested by the Louisiana Public Service Commission. PSC representatives, however, contradict that assertion — saying no such internal review was asked for, and the leadership change is not related to any request from the commission.

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Get caught up, quickly. LUS and its sister company 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 Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in July. In a press release distributed Oct. 11, 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 linked the review to the power outage monitoring payments. Robideaux named his chief administrative officer, Lowell Duhon, to oversee LUS, and Kayla Miles, Fiber’s business administrator, as LUS Fiber’s interim director, replacing Jeff Stewart and Teles Fremin, respectively. 

“Subsequent to the self-reports, the PSC requested that a more in-depth and internally unbiased review of all LUS Fiber inter-agency transactions be performed, necessitating the staff changes,” Robideaux wrote in his October press release, suggesting that the PSC itself had requested the leadership changes or supported the decision. 

There is no written record of such requests from the PSC. Requests for management changes “would absolutely be in writing,” commission spokesman Colby Cook says. “We rarely make those kinds of recommendations. It’s a financial audit.”

PSC Executive Secretary Brandon Frey confirms the commission has not asked for an internal review of inter-agency transactions. “There is nothing pending on anything like that,” he says.

To date, the PSC has investigated only one self-reported violation from 2018. Robideaux’s July letter concerning the power outage monitoring system triggered no new review or request from the PSC, according to PSC staff. The last formal correspondence between the administration and the PSC was a June audit report concerning the 2018 discovery of payments from LUS to Fiber for services to sewer lift stations and some electric system components that were never connected. After a comprehensive review of inter-system transactions, the PSC found that besides the $1.7 million in sewer and electric payments paid out over several years, which Fiber reimbursed, the system was in compliance with state law and PSC rules, according to the report. 

The June report raised concerns about having a single director run both Fiber and LUS. Longtime Director Terry Huval ran both LUS and LUS Fiber, an arrangement PSC staff wrote “may have weakened the strength of internal controls.” That concern was moot by the time the audit was concluded, as two different interim directors were already in place by the end of 2018. 

Robideaux took widespread criticism for a bid to privatize management of LUS. The deal, first revealed by The Current in the spring of 2018, would have sold management rights to private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners and at one time potentially included Fiber. Huval retired early from a previously announced decision to step down amid the controversy. The episode pitted Huval against his former boss, as the retired director publicly opposed the Bernhard deal. Later that fall, the City-Parish Council and the mayor-president agreed to divide LUS and Fiber into separate divisions. Robideaux appointed Stewart and Fremin to their interim posts, which they held without incident until October’s shakeup. 

The self-reports have figured in political campaign materials. The Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee, whose Facebook page is run by Robideaux’s political consultant Joe Castille, used these transactions as a wedge issue against Councilman Bruce Conque, who lost his re-election bid to Andy Naquin, and mayor-president candidate Carlee Alm-LaBar.

(Disclosure: Alm-LaBar gave seed money to The Current in 2018; view our list of donors here.)

The administration has yet to officially respond to the June report from the PSC. Within a month of receiving the June audit, however, Robideaux claimed to have found the second potential violation of the act and said he hand-delivered a letter outlining those findings to the PSC, writing to the PSC that LUS may have made illegal payments totaling $8 million to LUS Fiber over an eight-year period. He actually hand-delivered the letter to Public Service Commissioner Craig Greene, when he visited the commissioner to discuss the June report.

“[Commissioner Greene] hasn’t had any more conversations other than when Mayor Robideaux had given us the letter, and we said we’ll get this to our staff. We gave no formal recommendation as to what they should do with [it],” says David Zito, Greene’s chief of staff. “None of the commissioners have approached us, and we have not approached any of the other commissioners about it.”

The legality of cross-subsidization between LUS and Fiber is regularly tested in annual attest audits, and interagency transactions are run through LCG’s finance department. In his letter, Robideaux, an accountant, took issue with the accounting method used to price the cost of power outage monitoring system, saying the approach likely violated state law. An audit conducted by LUS Fiber’s independent auditors in 2012 and a PSC audit for 2011 and 2012 did not take issue with the payment computations, which were based on the annual estimated savings from power outages. That means numerous oversight mechanisms, including Robideaux’s own administration, would have failed to detect any problems.

Robideaux has not asked the PSC to audit that issue, yet he references it as one of two self-reported findings to justify the leadership changes. 

“We are committed to providing the most complete and unbiased report possible to the PSC, and the need for fresh sets of eyes is what prompted the naming of new interim directors at LUS and LUS Fiber,” LCG spokeswoman Cydra Wingerter writes in an emailed response to questions about the management changes sent this week. “The outcome of this in-depth, internal review will be formally provided to the PSC, and it is expected that a decision will be made as to whether the findings will be included in the initial self-report or taken up separately.”

Robideaux told commissioners in the July letter that Fiber’s annual attest audit began in May 2019 and would be filed with the commission by August. As of Tuesday, the attest audit had not been turned over to the PSC, its records show. 

“There’s nothing pending at the commission involving the July letter,” says the PSC’s Frey. “I don’t think there’s been any request from them to open up an audit.”

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ICYMI: Robideaux shakes up LUS/Fiber leadership just ahead of primary

The gist: Breaking the day before Saturday’s primary, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux removed interim directors for LUS and LUS Fiber, installing his chief administrative officer over the utilities system and elevating a longtime staffer within Fiber.

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Get caught up, quickly. LUS and its sister company 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 for a power outage monitoring system, was self-reported by the mayor-president in July. Last year, Robideaux put LUS and LUS Fiber under the authority of separate directors, following the exit of longtime Director Terry Huval, who retired early partially in protest of the mayor-president’s effort to sell management of LUS to Bernhard Capital Partners. Robideaux appointed Huval lieutenants Jeff Stewart (LUS) and Teles Fremin (LUS Fiber) as interim directors of the now independent divisions. 

The shakeup was sudden. The directors and the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, the council sub-agency that oversees LUS, were informed Friday afternoon, shortly before a press release was circulated announcing the decision. 

Fremin and Stewart remain with LUS and Fiber. Robideaux temporarily put CAO Lowell Duhon in charge of LUS, and Fiber business administrator Kayla Miles over LUS Fiber, moving LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter to fill in for Duhon. Both civil service employees, Fremin and Stewart have returned to the positions held prior to their interim appointments.

Robideaux suggests the move was requested by the Public Service Commission. The PSC is a state agency that has limited regulatory authority over LUS Fiber, primarily for the purposes of enforcing a state fair competition law passed to protect incumbent telecoms when Fiber was created more than a decade ago. A press release sent out Friday claims the PSC requested an “internally unbiased” review of transactions between Fiber and other municipal agencies. 

“It is important that we provide the PSC with assurance that this review process removes any internal bias that might be associated with long-term employees,” Robideaux says in the release. “The best way to accomplish that is with fresh sets of eyes.” 

The PSC produced an audit in June. It was spurred by the 2018 discovery of $1.6 million in payments to Fiber for services that were never connected. Fiber reimbursed those payments before the PSC audit. The audit report went to an administrative judge in August. The judicial review is ongoing, and the PSC hasn’t taken action since July, when Robideaux self-reported more questionable payments. 

Lagniappe. The Advertiser reported what it claims are more suspicious payments totaling $4 million over eight years. The report, published shortly after Robideaux’s press release, centers on charges for a set of communications hubs used by LUS, for which Fiber bills the utilities system $680 a month. It’s unclear whether the payments violate state law — Fiber is audited annually with transactions examined by LCG’s finance department — or if the administration intends to report them. The administration did not respond to requests for comment.

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Explaining the hullabaloo around LUS Fiber and why it matters

LUS Fiber has recently been accused of receiving millions in illegal subsidies from LUS. This is a complex issue with a lot at stake. An explainer is in order.

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Controversy over LUS payments underscores Fiber’s financial challenges ahead

The gist: Last week, the mayor-president alleged that LUS Fiber charged LUS millions in fraudulent payments for a power outage monitoring system that wasn’t useful. He asked for the Public Service Commission to investigate, swirling controversy around Fiber and its former director. Regardless of the episode’s outcome, it’s clear Fiber faces significant financial risk moving forward.

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Robideaux claims more fraudulent payments from LUS to LUS Fiber, putting Fiber’s financials at risk

The gist: The Daily Advertiser broke a story late Monday that Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has self-reported a second potential violation of state law regulating LUS Fiber. In his Monday letter to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, Robideaux claims LUS may have made illegal payments totaling $8 million to LUS Fiber over an eight-year period. If the PSC agrees, this could create a significant financial burden for LUS Fiber’s operations moving forward.

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Ready or not, we’re talking about 5G now

The gist: For the past year or so, LCG has honed policy for the dawn of 5G networks. Tired of waiting, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux short-circuited the deliberation, introducing his own policy ahead of the administration’s schedule.

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Stop. What’s 5G? A quick oversimplification: 5G is the next (fifth) generation of cellular networks projected to supplant 4G and LTE service in the coming years. 5G networks use dense clusters of small wireless transmitter boxes, attached to existing utility poles or mounted on short towers, to broadcast connections comparable to fiber speeds and reliability. Phones have not yet been developed to use 5G — AT&T’s 5G E is not 5G; it’s LTE plus marketing — but the event horizon is only a couple of years away. Cities are now grappling with policies to deal with fleets of transmitter boxes — i.e. “small wireless facilities”  — in public rights of way. It’s progress, but also a nuisance.

Boudreaux compiled a policy to regulate deployment of 5G transmitters in the city and unincorporated areas of the parish. He introduced it as an ordinance, which governs “small wireless facilities,” at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting. It defines things like fees and permitting and defines aesthetic restrictions. Over the past year or so, Boudreaux tells me, he talked with some of the major telecoms developing the technology — like Cox, Verizon and AT&T — but pulled from policies adopted in other Louisiana cities to craft his ordinance. His draft resembles one passed in Baton Rouge in 2017 and shares some of the same exact language. He says the administration should have acted a while ago.

He forced the administration to move. Boudreaux allowed LCG’s legal team to sub in its own draft ordinance as an amendment to his. The legal department and administration worked for the last year or so on the policy with a D.C. law firm specializing in communications. The administration’s draft policy is more detailed and applies stricter guidelines for how the boxes look and where they can be placed. Fees are different too: Boudreaux’s ordinance charges $270 annually per device to add them to city-owned utility poles; while the administration’s policy bills $220. You can view Boudreaux’s original ordinance here. And the administration’s ordinance here.

“My God, Crowley has adopted theirs already,” Boudreaux tells me. His decision to put forth an ordinance ahead of legal was spurred by watching small communities like Carencro adopt policies while Lafayette had yet to do so. (My family is from Crowley, for the record.) In pushing an ordinance, one he admits was not quite ready for prime time, Boudreaux intended to force a public conversation and position himself to lead it. “I gotta govern in a way other people don’t have to,” he explains. One primary concern, he expressed Tuesday night, is that poles could clutter the neighborhoods in his district. He showed the council a picture of a squat, unsightly tower pimpled with grey boxes in McComb-Veazey. It’s not clear where the tower came from. (Maybe it’s a ghost tower.)

Rapidly adopted policies have caused problems in other markets. Baton Rouge rushed an industry-friendly ordinance in July 2017 only to circle back to close loopholes later that year. Still, downtowners there fussed when AT&T began planting 80 5G towers, sometimes in the middle of sidewalks.

5G could pressure LUS Fiber. Some observers say the technology could one day challenge fiber-to-the-home internet service. 5G networks are cheaper to build in neighborhoods that don’t currently have fiber-to-the-home in place (like many of the areas Boudreaux represents) and can be used to add fixed internet service wirelessly. Others say it’s not likely to supplant fiber service altogether, but it could muscle fiber-based internet providers around in the market.

What to watch for: How the council approaches the policy discussion going forward. Boudreaux’s move appears to have pushed the administration into the conversation ahead of schedule, and the draft ordinance swapped in is now subject to council debate at final adoption in a couple of weeks. Other communities have haggled over how much to charge telecoms for the use of public space. Baton Rouge charges $250 per device. Other cities charge thousands. Money will play a big factor in the discussion here.

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Looks like Terry Huval was a bargain

The gist: Lafayette’s future utilities director could make $250,000, close to the salary retired LUS Director Terry Huval earned to run both LUS and LUS Fiber. The council introduced a measure to bump the budgeted salary to that figure for the newly independent position.

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It was originally budgeted at $150,000 when Robideaux moved to split LUS and LUS Fiber into separate departments during last fall’s budget process. He pegged the Fiber director’s salary then at $115,000. Huval was far and away the highest paid public employee in Lafayette Consolidated Government, a distinction that drew some criticism from budget hawks like Robideaux. (Robideaux, according to some, once bragged that no one in his administration would make $250,000.) Some council members pushed back on Robideaux’s original budget, saying good talent couldn’t be had at those prices.

“If we know these numbers are too low, what are we doing?” Kenneth Boudreaux pressed Robideaux at the time.

“I don’t think it’s enough if that’s what you’re asking me,” Robideaux replied.

So why $250,000 and why now? By law, Robideaux must get approval from a contract engineer to fill the position. That consultant, NewGen Strategies & Solutions (no affiliation with NextGEN Utility Systems, the failed LUS suitor), advised the administration that a new director for a utility the size of LUS (a $300 million enterprise) should cost around $250,000.  

We still don’t know how much a Fiber director will cost. That’s a separate issue, not managed by NewGen. Boudreaux, who clamored Tuesday night about the new salary, produced an estimate from 2013 that a Fiber director should cost $200,000. If that figure is close to right, new directors of LUS and LUS Fiber combined would cost $450,000.

“That’s $450,000 without even blinking,” Boudreaux told me ahead of the meeting, frustrated with the hurdles jumped to raise LCG employee salaries 2 percent last year, including an override of Robideaux’s veto.

What to watch for: How quickly a new director is recruited and installed. Current interim Director Jeff Stewart, a Huval lieutenant, says he’s interested in the gig. Stewart is already spearheading a public process for the electric system’s integrated resource plan — essentially a long-term planning process that determines how much power is needed and where it will come from — a first for LUS. Stewart tells me that process should be underway in June and could take a year or more. That means the new director could come on board in the middle of a transformative time.

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New year, new directors to come for Fiber and LUS

The gist: Fiber and LUS have been formally split since the budget was adopted last year, but the search for new directors to run the now independent agencies was punted until the NextGEN affair was resolved.

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Mayor-President Joel Robideaux intends to fill four vacant director positions this year. Fiber and LUS directorships have been vacant since the fall, when the council approved reorganizing Fiber into its own department. It’s an election year, which could complicate the job search, and Robideaux has been slow to fill other director level positions. LCG also currently has interim directors running the IT and planning departments. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter says the search for an new IT director is starting this week.

Some background: LUS Fiber was created as a division of LUS, not a separate department of LCG. The two shared a director — until mid-last year, longtime LUS Director Terry Huval, one of Fiber’s founders — and shared some administrative staff. As Fiber’s operations have gotten off the ground, it’s built out its own support team. After the split, Fiber became its own department, not unlike public works or planning, and is separate from LUS. Since Huval retired last year, it’s been overseen by Interim Fiber Director Teles Fremin. Jeff Stewart serves as interim utilities director.

OK, so what difference does that make? Many have argued that Fiber has long needed its own dedicated director. The thinking is, it’s a $40 million a year operation that needs full-time attention to grow. That was Robideaux’s rationale when he proposed the split last year, and the council has come on board.

Fiber and LUS are financially intertwined, but the split shouldn’t change that. Fiber owes LUS $28 million for loans fronted by LUS in the system’s early days. Fiber has paid virtually only interest on that debt, but is scheduled to make big payments in the next few years, starting with a $1.5 million payment in 2019. Also, Fiber owes $110 million on bonds that are backstopped by LUS. In other words, if Fiber defaults on its bonds, LUS would be on the hook. Robideaux assured the council that LCG is ultimately responsible for Fiber’s debts, and nothing about the split changes the obligations.

Speaking of the council, the new city council will oversee Fiber once the charter amendments take effect in 2020. There was some question at Tuesday’s council meeting whether the split would swap out regulators. LUS is regulated by the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a council subset made up of the five city-majority council members. Establishing a city council negates the need for an extra body. Insofar as the LPUA governed LUS, Fiber was under its purview. But, by state law, Fiber is audited by the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC, for instance, is reviewing the $1.8 million Fiber billed LUS for service to sewer lift stations that were hooked up but never turned on.

What to watch for: Salaries for the new fiber and utilities directors. Last year, council members Bruce Conque, now LPUA chair, and Kenneth Boudreaux argued Robideaux set the salaries too low: $150,000 for the utilities director and $115,000 for the Fiber director. Qualifications and salary for the utilities director will be set in consultation with LUS’s consultant of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions (no relationship to NextGEN). But the Fiber director’s salary is up to the administration, subject to approval of the city-parish council this year and the city council in the future. Wingerter tells me the $100,000 salary is not set in stone and could rise depending on candidate interest.

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LUS/NextGEN affair could haunt Robideaux in his 2019 re-election bid

Challengers are already mulling 2019. LUS could be the platform they need.

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What’s next after NextGEN

On Monday, NextGen withdrew their offer to manage LUS hours before the Council voted against considering any deal like it. So now what?

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Robideaux says the public doesn’t have all the facts on the NextGEN/LUS deal. He’s not helping.

If the public doesn’t have all the facts, it’s in part because he’s not providing them. The bottom line is Robideaux’s account raises some red flags. Here are a few of the big ones.

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