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: LUS Fiber’s business model is broken, outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux argued in a presentation Tuesday that wrapped up his months-long investigation into the municipal telecom’s finances. Robideaux will self-report to state regulators millions, most of which is disputed, in overcharged or unwarranted payments he says were intended to prop up Fiber in violation of state law.
“It cannot continue the way that it’s structured,” Robideaux told the City-Parish Council in his final meeting as mayor-president this week. “To ignore the reality is not doing anyone a service.”
He alleged another $2 million in “questionable” payments. This time for “dark fiber” services that he will report to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which has limited oversight over LUS Fiber. Robideaux claimed Fiber charged LUS more than three times what it billed private customers for the dark fiber connection, identifying the disparity as a theme in Fiber’s billing practices.
All told, so far this year Robideaux has flagged roughly $10 million in payments. That’s on top of the $1.5 million in erroneous charges for unconnected sewer pump communication lines that were self-reported by then-LUS Director Terry Huval in 2018; Fiber reimbursed LUS with interest. The erroneous sewer pump payments led to a PSC audit, which in turn prompted Robideaux’s internal review. Earlier this year, Robideaux self-reported $8 million in payments for a Power Outage Monitoring System he said was overpriced and unnecessary. Huval, the architect of Fiber, disputes Robideaux’s central claims about POMS and vigorously defended the service in a press conference last month. The administration has not yet reported the $2 million in dark fiber services revealed this week.
Robideaux went further and called into question Fiber’s business model. Robideaux’s narrative suggests that without LCG, Fiber’s biggest customer, the telecom would be insolvent. Fiber’s business model is hemmed in by the four corners of the Louisiana Fair Competition Act, which defines how Fiber can operate. Introducing his findings, Robideaux said he discovered a “pattern of revenue manipulation that is hard to ignore,” calling it “naive” to think the practices were intended as anything other than subsidies for Fiber, which if true would run afoul of the Fair Competition Act. The state law was enacted to prohibit a financial crutch for the telecom and protect the private companies that fought Fiber’s creation. Still, Robideaux insisted he wasn’t claiming that anyone connected had done anything illegal.
Huval continues to defend the transactions. “As to the recent presentations, it should be noted that all LUS and LUS Fiber activities were brought to the City Administration, the City-Parish Council, and the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority for budgetary and overall approval,” Huval says in a written statement. He goes on to say that every LUS and LUS Fiber transaction complied with the Fair Competition Act, and was annually reviewed by the PSC.
Robideaux pointedly pulled punches on his accusations. Despite falling short of accusing the former director of breaking the law, he nevertheless attempted to paint a damning picture of the business practices overseen by Huval, who publicly opposed Robideaux’s shadowy bid to privatize management of LUS in 2018. Robideaux said the transactions hurt LUS ratepayers by increasing costs, but didn’t offer evidence of where it impacted utility customers directly. The last rate increase LUS sought was approved in 2016 to pay for a massive capital improvement package, which included a $120 million power plant that was later scrapped. The rate increases have not been rolled back. In closing, however, the mayor-president argued that Fiber was a net benefit for Lafayette, saying it was the city’s “calling card.”
Fiber does hold tremendous debt. The system became cash positive a few years ago, but owes $105 million on bonded debt as of 2018 and another $27 million on loans from LUS. By law, LUS backstops Fiber’s debt to bondholders. Should Fiber default, which could come as a result of an illegal payment, LUS and its ratepayers would be on the hook.
Robideaux’s allegations are now the future administration’s problem. While no timeline has been set out, Robideaux told the council he would deliver the new charges to the PSC before leaving office in early January. It’s the PSC’s discretion to pursue the issue any further. The commission’s audit of the sewer pump charges took about a year.
The PSC has distanced itself from Robideaux’s investigation. Robideaux at one time said the PSC requested his review, which the PSC disputed in interviews with The Current. His story evolved to pin the origin of the inquiry on a conversation with a commissioner, who again disavowed any connection to the investigation. Public records indicate LCG was billed more than $35,500 for legal services related to the inquiry, conducted primarily by attorney Larry Marino.
“I would like to have seen what he imagined were the next steps,” Councilwoman Liz Hebert says. Hebert has called for a “forensic” audit of the system, one with “no ties” to LCG, LUS or the mayor-president, to ferret out the controversy at Fiber and LUS. Critics have questioned the mayor-president’s motivation, characterizing the conduct of his inquiry as one-sided. Hebert says incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory intends to go forward with her suggestion.
What to watch for: What 2020 holds. There’s some indication that Guillory will continue to look into the issue, but it remains unclear to what extent that will be a priority. Guillory will need to install new directors for both LUS and Fiber, now distinct departments, and make his own determination about the agency’s solvency and business plan. Robideaux has spent the better part of a year prosecuting LUS and Fiber, finding the sister utilities to be in disrepair, but has not offered up a way to fix them.
The gist: This is it — barring any special meetings — the last-ever meeting of the Lafayette City-Parish Council. Wasting no political opportunity, the agenda is chocked full of hot-button items.
Six new taxing districts. With the EDDs likely to be the biggest showdown of the bunch, the council will take up separate votes on these new sales and hotel taxes to raise money for development around the Northgate Mall, Acadiana Mall, the University Avenue corridor, and Downtown, as well as redevelopment projects at the Holy Rosary Institute and the former Trappey’s canning plant. Incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory just announced publicly opposition to the districts and urged the council to punt them to next year. Here’s an explainer on the ins and outs.
Robideaux’s report on LUS/Fiber. Outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will wrap up an eight-month investigation into “questionable” payments between consolidated government agencies and LUS Fiber. Along the way, Robideaux has suggested impropriety on the part of retired LUS Director Terry Huval, namely that millions were spent unlawfully under his watch to prop the municipal telecom up. The Louisiana Public Service Commission has distanced itself from the inquiry despite Robideaux’s insistence that it began with a PSC request.
New funding agreement for city prisoners. The administration is moving money around — including selling a parking lot — to pay in part for a $1.25 million intergovernmental agreement to house city prisoners at the parish correctional center. Three separate ordinances cover a fund balance transfer, the parking lot sale and execution of the IGA, which stipulates that the money go to capital improvements at the jail. Note: This doesn’t address the funding dispute between the sheriff and parish government.
Restoring funding to the juvenile assessment center. Sheriff Mark Garber shuttered the juvenile assessment center, among other so-called diversion programs, citing budget problems. An ordinance by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who works under contract for LPSO and has taken criticism for a conflict of interest, would restore $600,000 to JAC by transferring some fund balance out of the juvenile detention center.
5% pay raises for City Court employees. This is the last of a batch of pay raises for public employees passed recently. It adds another $55,000 in personnel costs to the city budget, which is facing more and more financial pressure. The council has adopted millions in increased salaries for the police department and other public employees.
The gist: Challenged by the council to be more transparent, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux delivered to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority potentially damaging comments gathered by the administration during its investigation of payments by LUS to LUS Fiber.
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 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 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. Robideaux named his chief administrative officer, Lowell Duhon, to oversee LUS, and Kayla Miles Brooks, Fiber’s business administrator, as LUS Fiber’s interim director, replacing Jeff Stewart and Teles Fremin, respectively. LUS’s consulting engineer has deemed Duhon and Brooks unqualified for the posts.
Once closely held and secretive, the review was center stage at a special joint meeting of the council and the LPUA. Lafayette Public Utilities Authority Chairman Bruce Conque requested the meeting after a pointedly challenging email to Robideaux from Councilman Jay Castille, a frequent critic. “I think everyone agrees that if there was a violation of the law, that would be a very serious allegation,” Castille wrote the mayor on Nov. 13. “I think all anyone wants is a ‘comprehensive, complete and honest analysis.’ But the way you have handled this entire matter makes many doubt your sincerity.”
Castille, who declined to comment for this story, had also called the mayor to task for being untruthful about the Public Service Commission’s role in the ongoing review; Robideaux has said, and repeated Tuesday, that Public Service Commissioner Craig Greene asked for a wider inquiry of the relationships between LUS, LCG and Fiber. Greene’s office denies it played any role. The Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a subcommittee of the council, regulates LUS, and the PSC has limited oversight over LUS and Fiber, ensuring they comply with provisions of the Local Government Fair Competition Act.
Robideaux’s presentation came on the heels of a press conference called abruptly last week by former LUS/LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval, in which Huval defended the power outage monitoring system’s pricing and usefulness.
In his remarks, Robideaux responded to criticism with what may be the most damaging information to date. He released emails and anonymous comments gathered in interviews recorded under attorney-client privilege during the investigation into the power outage payments to LUS Fiber. The complete context of the comments isn’t clear, and Robideaux seemed to attempt to attribute the statements to eight people interviewed, including LUS’s and Fiber’s former interim directors, an LCG accountant, an auditor and two attorneys who work on LUS matters. (You can view his full presentation and comments here.)
“In my opinion, I’ve always thought it was kind of a stretch … as someone who works in the industry, that’s why we are eliminating it, to be honest with you,” said one interviewee. And another: “We need to let it fall off the books because we’re not seeing the justification.”
Huval continues to stand by the POMS decision. “Last week, I explained how we incorporated the beneficial use of technology on the LUS system that resulted in significantly reduced electric outage durations, while still maintaining the lowest rates in the state,” Huval wrote in response to a request for comment. “During the implementation of such technological upgrades, I did not receive any indication by LUS staff or consultants that any of these initiatives were not cost effective. LUS customers are receiving the best service ever because of initiatives such as these.” (View Huval’s presentation here.)
Why this matters: Robideaux presented what may be the most compelling evidence to date that some LUS insiders suspected the power outage monitoring payments were a way to prop the fiber division up at a time it desperately needed cash flow. Should a new PSC audit determine the service was mispriced or unnecessary, the money may have to be paid back to LUS with interest, delivering a financial blow that could jeopardize the future of LUS Fiber. Robideaux is expected to give the LPUA an update by mid-December and complete the review by the end of the year.
The gist: Long considered the goose that laid the golden egg, Lafayette Utilities System, along with its sister entity, LUS Fiber, is now mired in political controversy heading into Saturday’s mayoral runoff between Carlee Alm-LaBar and Josh Guillory. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has floated accusations of unlawful transactions between the systems, initiated leadership changes and launched an internal investigation, all of which have drawn suspicions of political motives.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The gist: Flattening energy demand has taken a toll on LUS sales. While electric revenues are growing, they are falling short of budgeted projections each year. For the upcoming fiscal year, LUS cut $10 million from last year’s projected revenue, a belt-tightening figure when compared to historic estimates.
Electrical demand has been sluggish. And that accounts for most of the diminished outlook. In the proposed 2019/2020 budget, LUS projects $101 million in base rate revenue — retail sales, excluding fuel — on $253 million in revenues for the entire utilities system, including wastewater and water services. This year’s adopted budget, reflecting fiscal year 2019, projected $108 million in electric sales on $241 million in total utilities operating revenue.
LUS revenues missed on budget projections each of the last three years. While electric sales have increased year-over-year, they’ve fallen as much as $10 million short of estimated revenues in each of the last three budgets. To an extent, next year’s diminished projections hew closer to the system’s actual performance but still reflect an expectation of growth, albeit slower:
|Year||Total Projected||Total Actual||Elec. Sales Proj.||Elec. Sales Act.|
|2016||$240 million||$220 million||$92 million||$84 million|
|2017||$244 million||$225 million||$97 million||$87 million|
|2018||$246 million||$232 million||$107 million||$95 million|
|2019*||$253 million||n/a||$108 million||n/a|
|2020*||$241 million||n/a||$101 million||n/a|
*Only projected revenues are available.
Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says the trend is concerning, but notes the system is still adding customers. But these new customers, he says, are using less energy per person. That means diminishing returns as LUS grows its customer base through city annexations, franchise agreements with Broussard and Youngsville, and an acquisition deal with Slemco.
“We’re adding customers, but they’re more efficient customers,” Stewart tells me.
LUS raised electric rates in 2016. A 9% total increase was phased in over the last few years to pay for a $240 million bond package that included $120 million for a new natural gas power generator. The plan was scuttled after public pushback, and LUS reduced its bond request to $70 million, throwing out plans for the new generator. The rate increases have remained in place. LUS moved forward with work on new wastewater treatment facilities, sewer line upgrades in the urban core, and has submitted work orders to outfit 18,000 city lights with LEDs, a $7 million project.
Energy efficient appliances and consumer habits have taken a bite out of power company revenues nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that trend to continue, projecting flattened electricity demand decades into the foreseeable future
If you can’t sell more of it, what do you do? Stewart tells me LUS is exploring EV charging as a potential revenue stream. Air conditioners, he says, were the 20th century innovation that drove electric revenues. Some 10 million electric vehicles are expected to hit American streets by 2025, offering one consumer sector that could increase electric demand and, in turn, drive sales for power companies.
Why this matters: LUS has major upgrades in the not-so-distant future. Remember that whole business with Jim Bernhard? Paying for those upgrades was a big part of his sales pitch. Most of Lafayette’s power capacity comes from a coal plant, which is routinely on the cusp of regulatory shutdown, depending on who occupies the White House. (Most of the time, LUS buys the power you use in your house from a grid market.) Outside of the looming need for investing in power generation, the system is a capital-intensive enterprise. Historically, the electric system has subsidized water and wastewater operation. A budget crunch on the electric side presents a major challenge for the system’s long-term financial health and could even put its contribution to the city’s budget, roughly $23 million every year, at risk.
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.
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.
The gist: LUS will contract Burns & McDonnell to run its integrated resource plan, the process the utility uses to determine its future energy needs and how it will power them. The choice of consultant met immediate criticism among local green energy advocates. The contract is worth $500,000 and was approved Tuesday by the professional services committee.
Burns & Mac guided LUS on two controversial decisions. In 2011, the company recommended LUS continue burning coal in central Louisiana, instead of switching to natural gas, a decision critics maintain was a costly mistake in hindsight. And in 2016, LUS developed a $100 million plan to build new natural gas generators, at the consultant’s suggestion, even raising electric rates to finance the plan. That decision triggered a backlash that ultimately shelved the plan and in part led to last year’s privatization controversy.
“Half a million dollars is a lot of money,” renewable energy advocate Simon Mahan tells me. Mahan developed a lengthy document criticizing the 2016 plan but has since departed Lafayette. “To use the same firm that got it wrong twice before is eyebrow raising.”
Interim Director Jeff Stewart says this contract is different. The 2011 and 2016 plans did not involve robust public engagement, and Stewart says that engagement is baked into this upcoming process.
“That’s why we shelved [the 2016 plan],” Stewart tells me. “I want as many people who want to get involved to get involved.” He expects to time the public facing process to PlanLafayette activities, with outreach beginning in September.
LUS’s open approach seems to be working. Mahan tells me he believes that Burns & Mac is capable of delivering. And he gives a lot of credit to Stewart’s leadership style.
“Frankly, I’ve been really impressed with what he’s been saying and the actions he’s taken. There’s a new wind at LUS to listen to the public a little bit more,” Mahan says. “That makes me feel good.”