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

The gist: A conservative who ran on reining in government spending, Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory zeroed out millions in city spending in his first budget proposal since taking office. Unveiled Tuesday night, the budget calls for arts, recreation and community development programming to take the brunt of the austerity cuts, while what Guillory calls core government services remain largely intact.

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The operating budget would be reduced by $30 million, with most cuts hitting the city’s general fund. The deep cuts are set against a predicted $23 million decline in revenues for the next fiscal year. Last year’s consolidated budget topped $630 million, including the utility system, which is roughly half of the budget all by itself. Guillory’s proposed budget, introduced to the councils Tuesday night, frames up a $600 million consolidated budget. Lafayette’s city general fund hovers around $100 million in appropriations annually. 

Covid-19 figures prominently in the budget messaging, but many of the cuts target services Guillory views as secondary to the functions of government. Other savings were realized by ordinances passed to pause scheduled pay raises for the city police, fire and LCG employees. Those raises are a big part of the ongoing operating deficit Guillory inherited. 

“We have to ask the difficult questions and be willing to freshly examine old assumptions,” Guillory writes in his budget message. “By honestly examining all aspects of our operations and diligently seeking better ways to do things, we can develop a real culture of innovation in Lafayette Consolidated Government.” 

As a candidate, Guillory promised to do more with less. And that messaging was consistent before the pandemic blew up municipal budgets across the country and dried up tax revenues. He signed a pledge with conservative backers during his run, promising not to raise taxes and to prioritize infrastructure and public safety as core government priorities, rhetoric he’s stuck to since taking office. His budget accomplishes that and then some. Many of the notable cuts are to programs heavily criticized by the hardline conservatives that backed Guillory.

Those savings may come at great cost to families who rely on programs facing steep cuts. Guillory cut city general fund subsidies to the Parks and Recreation budget by 37%, including closures to four rec centers on the Northside and layoffs to three dozen employees. That’s on top of layoffs at the Lafayette Science Museum, Heymann Performing Arts Center and other cultural programs that sparked fierce backlash earlier this summer. Going into Tuesday’s council meeting, the rec center decision surfaced outrage among Black leaders blindsided by the late-week announcement and subsequent scrambles to explain the decision. Guillory faced a long chain of rebuke from community members, egged on by jeers from the auditorium, in a marathon meeting that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m. Many called Guillory to find cuts in his own office, including sacking Guillory’s chief of minority affairs, Carlos Harvin, a former member of the Senior Pastoral Alliance who’s  reportedly lost what little credibility he had with many Black leaders. 

“You should be ashamed,” NAACP chapter President Marja Broussard said through a mask, turning her glare directly to the seated mayor-president. Broussard and others have characterized Guillory’s cuts as disparate in their treatment of services cherished by the Black community. His decision to back moving a Confederate statue in Downtown Lafayette brought him little to no capital with aggrieved Black leaders, who nonetheless chastised the administration for failing to understand the role the rec centers play. Around 2 a.m., the city council voted unanimously to support moving the statue, an emotional coda to the meeting. 

Guillory defended the rec cuts by sticking with a justification he made in the days after the announcement spurred rallies and a widely circulated petition. “The facts are one-third of our rec centers still proudly serve the Northside,” he said coolly in the heat of public comment. Again, the auditorium groaned and Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin gaveled for order. All four rec centers are in neighborhoods with relatively low rates of vehicle ownership. The administration’s vaguely articulated plan for public-private partnerships with local church groups has not curried favor among advocates fighting to keep the rec centers open.  

“You’ve made it perfectly clear what the priorities of the administration is, and that’s fine; I certainly respect that. But parks and recreation and anti-poverty programs and services provided by community development are to my district what drainage is to Liz and Nanette’s districts,” City Councilman Glenn Lazard said, referencing fellow City Council members Liz Hebert and Nanette Cook, both of whom represent portions of south Lafayette. Lazard’s comment was met with loud applause from a packed council auditorium Tuesday night. 

Many of the cuts would remain indefinitely. Longterm, the administration severs operating subsidies — supplemental dollars from the city general fund — for many of the affected programs. That’s consistent with Guillory’s calls to remake local government as we know it and push for more privatization where possible. Some cuts will be restored. Subsidies to Lafayette Transit System would stop for the next two fiscal years, replaced in the interim by a $7 million award from the federal coronavirus stimulus, with funding reverting to pre-Covid levels. But others, like the cuts to the Heymann Performing Arts Center that drew uproar from the dance companies that use the space, won’t be restored. 

The budget forecasts steep losses in revenue into the next year. In her published budget discussion, Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups projects a 17% reduction in sales tax revenue in the current fiscal year, and another 11% decrease in the next one That includes $7.5 million in lost utility revenues, as bills have gone unpaid during the pandemic. LUS rolled out a program to help families catch up on their bills, spreading the debt out as long as they’re able to stop accruing more. It’s unclear whether LCG will take advantage of the $35 million in debt capacity it sought as a backstop to operations. 

Belts are tightening hard while the city’s substantial reserves are jealously protected. Noting in his budget message the $18 million operating deficit he “inherited” from the previous administration and council, Guillory makes sparing use of the substantial cushion provided by general fund reserves. The city sat on an unaudited fund balance of $54 million going into this year, an amount that would cover 50% of its annual operating costs. For perspective, the city of Lafayette began fiscal year 2010 with a $19 million fund balance, then 20% of its audited expenses, at a time when consolidated government was climbing out of a hole. Guillory’s proposed budget and forecasts for coming years would park the general fund balance around $30 million, or 30% of operating costs while revenues creep up. Long-standing local fiscal policy has targeted a fund balance covering 20% of expenses. Guillory’s proposal, anticipating sluggish revenue growth, keeps reserves well above that threshold. 

“That is what I’m looking into. I get you’re trying to keep money in the general fund. These are the rainy day funds,” says Councilwoman Cook, who has also needled the administration for a lack of communication on some budget figures, including the numbers used to justify the rec center closures. She notes $890,000 in unencumbered CREATE funds, a figure she’d been after to clarify but unable to get pinned down. “That’s the first time I’m getting that number. Those are funds that could be put to good use. To shut down things just for a nice float…I don’t think so.” 

This is a proposed budget and subject to council debate. Both the city and parish councils will have to sign off on the administration’s plan. Over the next couple of months, budget sessions will break the constituent parts down, and council amendments could radically change how the budget looks once it gets to the other side of final adoption. And even then, major changes can be made. Most of the added expenses weighing down the current budget — pay raises for police, fire and LCG personnel — were passed after the previous budget was adopted.

Councilman Lazard: Local mask ordinance in the works for city of Lafayette

Click here to read council members Glenn Lazard and Nanette Cook’s press release about backing away from their effort to pass a local mask ordinance.

The gist: Lafayette City Councilman Glenn Lazard is moving forward on a local mask mandate he hopes will tighten and potentially expand upon the state order that went into effect Monday. 

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Controversial political advocacy attracts new elected officials to fundraiser

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. 

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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.

Trapped and anxious, Quail Hollow residents are tired of waiting for flood fixes

The gist: Dozens gathered at a private home in Lafayette’s Quail Hollow neighborhood to get answers from public officials on efforts to relieve flooding in what was one of the hardest hit areas in the floods of August 2016. Begging for projects that would make inches of difference, residents were told there was meaningfully little that could be done in the near term. 

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Work on a coulee lateral that drains part of the neighborhood has stalled. Two gas lines were discovered by work crews in the last few weeks, according to Public Works drainage coordinator Fred Trahan, pausing cleanup on the ditch that runs behind Cornelius Street, near Comeaux High School. Most of the homes on Cornelius flooded in 2016. Some have flooded again since. 

LCG’s drainage project dashboard lists the project as under budget and on schedule to have been finished at the end of June. Residents have been clamoring for the work to be done on the lateral — designated Isaac Verot Coulee Lateral 7 — since 2016. Trahan said in an email to The Current that the project was at one time ahead of schedule, but weather delays and the discovery of the two gas lines interrupted work. 

Quail Hollow and its sister neighborhoods aren’t designed to handle recent flooding events. Trahan noted the 40-year-old subdivisions were built long before developers were required to add detention facilities to capture stormwater and reduce runoff. Increasingly intensifying rains are overwhelming a system built for lighter rains. Public Works is considering a diversion project for the bowl-shaped basin, an intervention expected to be costly and long in the making. 

“Can we do it? Yes. But it won’t solve the problem,” Trahan said, explaining that the backflows in 25-year storms would still topple into homes. 

Cost could prohibit any real solution. Meanwhile, people are trapped in their homes. What interventions have been offered, many by frustrated residents, are unlikely to shave much more than an inch off of rising water levels during a big storm. Several homes have gone on the market since 2016, with no takers. Much of the neighborhood is now part of a 100-year flood zone, meaning at elevated risk, according to FEMA flood maps adopted in 2018. That wasn’t the case when many residents bought their homes years ago. 

“One day, it may be cheaper to do buyouts,” Trahan told me. 

The coulee behind Cornelius can’t handle the added volume of water shedding into it from widespread development and urbanization, UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland told me last year. Kinsland’s mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, and he surveyed the area following the 2016 floods. He’s studied the relationship between urbanization and increased flooding in Lafayette Parish. In Kinsland’s opinion, routine maintenance wouldn’t prevent flooding related to the collision of intensifying rains and proliferating pavement. 

Officials promise that efforts are underway. Councilwoman Nanette Cook and State Rep. Stuart Bishop, who represent the neighborhoods at local and state levels, respectively, reiterated steps taken in their arenas of power. Cook reminded residents of a proposition on ballots this fall to divert $8 million in library funds to drainage and other capital projects, and noted she added a $5 million line item to LCG’s budget for spot dredging in the Vermilion River, a project generally believed to have limited, if any, impact on flooding in Quail Hollow. Bishop, for his part, promised to push the state department of transportation to clear out blockage under state bridges and pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move on the Vermilion. 

“Obviously, we don’t want to leave, because we’re here fighting for our homes,” said Melanie Roy, a Cornelius Drive resident. Roy demanded that nearby retention ponds, which she says maintain a high water level for aesthetic purposes, be lowered ahead of named storms. Trahan conceded it was feasible but cautioned that it may not do much good. 

“Can we try it?” Roy replied, exasperated and drawing applause from her fellow residents. 

Why this matters: Stormwater management is a quagmire in the parish and a political lightning rod. Simply put, no two drainage problems are alike, and in a time of limited resources, competing concerns are inevitable. In some cases, authorities are throwing pennies at $10 problems. Meanwhile, residents are emotionally drained by years of flood anxiety and what they see as inaction.