Deadlocked Bayou Vermilion board faces tough budget cuts and mounting political pressure

Vermilionville's front entrance
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Bayou Vermilion District commissioners affiliated with the conservative activist group Citizens for a New Louisiana and long-serving members, who are largely supported by an anxious arts community uniting behind Vermilionville, are in a deadlock.

The City Council will appoint a new member in the coming weeks to fill the final vacant seat on the BVD’s board of commissioners, the body that oversees bayou operations and the living history museum and folklife park. Judging by recent four-to-four splits on the nine-member board, the ideological tilt of the commission hangs in the balance of that appointment.

“I think it’ll be critical,” says current BVD Board President Tommy Michot of the council’s upcoming appointment. “Right now things are kind of at a standstill.”

Earlier this year, Vermilionville staff authored and published a statement on the police killing of George Floyd, roiling the normally sleepy board in controversy and attracting the attention of Citizens and its polarizing leader Michael Lunsford. Citizens-affiliated members were appointed to the board after the flare-up over the Floyd statement, shifting the board’s balance of power and pushing for budget changes that staff and arts advocates believe are politically motivated.

Months later, Vermilionville and the BVD remain under intense political scrutiny. In November, Lunsford published a video on Facebook praising the museum, noting he got married there and loves the restaurant’s bread pudding. But a comment introducing the video claims Vermilionville staff is “pilfering MILLIONS” intended for bayou operations and have “reappropriated nearly an entire agency to cultural manipulation and political engagement.”

Lunsford, who was soundly defeated Saturday in his bid for Republican state leadership, casts Citizens’ efforts at BVD as part of a broader campaign. “It’s one little board and commission at a time, y’all. Pay attention. We’re doing it,” he says, ending the video.

Despite the political overtures, the new board members, David Eaton and Mark Wiltz, have pushed back on the notion that they’re out to punish Vermilionville, instead insisting their intent is to make the organization financially solvent. And Lunsford, for his part, has said the group’s intent is not to gut Vermilionville’s budget, as widely feared by its defenders and staff.

Bayou Vermilion District Commissioner David Eaton
David Eaton, one of the new BVD commissioners associated with Citizens for a New Louisiana Photo by Travis Gauthier

At the board’s last meeting before it is scheduled to consider its 2021 budget for approval, some 60 participants tuned in via Zoom. The agenda included a management reorganization of BVD, pushed by Eaton and fellow Commissioner Calvin Leger. Chief Executive Officer David Cheramie was also scheduled to report on a private meeting -— brokered by Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin — held the day before with Mayor-President Josh Guillory over the controversy surrounding Vermilionville.

But for all the suspense, the BVD meeting was most notable for its inaction. The board deadlocked in a four-four tie on critical votes, including the election of its next president and vice president, as well as a contentious proposal to allow Eaton to negotiate and sign off of a new forensic audit (the audit itself had already been narrowly approved by the board). Asked to report on his meeting with Guillory, Cheramie relayed to the commissioners that the mayor-president expressed both support and criticism of Vermilionville, adding that he referenced the June George Floyd statement in his comments.

A Guillory spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting.

The stalemate at BVD heightens concern over the City Council’s upcoming appointment. The BVD board has seen an unprecedented five commissioners resign this year, turnover that has reshaped the commission with new members, many eager to make their mark. (The Floyd controversy resulted in three commissioner resignations. Shortly afterward, Commission Chairman Robert Minyard resigned; Jennifer Farr followed suit a month later, citing work schedule conflicts). Applications for the volunteer post are due by Dec. 15. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the appointment at its Jan. 5 meeting.

Perhaps the biggest decision facing the BVD board involves questions raised over its funding of Vermilionville. The museum has always been a part of the Bayou Vermilion District’s mission, along with enhancing Vermilion River water quality and recreational activity, and has shared in its property tax revenue.

Eaton chairs its finance committee and has solicited new financial reports detailing a rise in public dollars absorbed by Vermilionville, as opposed to bayou operations, over the past decade.

The reports show the museum’s share of the public millage has grown 44 percent since 2013, up to approximately $900,000 in pre-pandemic 2019, 52 percent of the approximate $1.7 million the tax brought in that year.

Michot and other BVD staff push back on the suggestion that river operations have suffered because of the increased costs of running Vermillionville. Water quality and cleanup work continue to be be effective. BVD broke ground this year on a $1 million water laboratory and exhibit, originally envisioned as a partnership with the Lafayette Science Museum, which suffered severe budget cuts at Guillory’s behest. Vermilionville advocates have defended the museum itself, noting its progress, including recent accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, and that overall benefit and insurance costs have been on the rise. They also dispute the characterization of Vermilionville's costs as losses.

Eaton also lobbied for a new forensic audit of BVD with the same accounting firm that produced a controversial audit report of Lafayette Utilities System. The report will be in addition to an annual external audit already required and performed of BVD’s finances. Cheramie has protested the audit engagement letter’s use of the term forensic, which typically implies an investigation of fraud and wrongdoing. (The new audit won’t be completed until sometime next year, Eaton says.)

Bayou Vermilion District CEO David Cheramie
Bayou Vermilion District CEO David Cheramie at a November commission meeting Photo by Travis Gauthier

“There’s been a whole lot of confusion about what we’re trying to do and what I’m trying to do,” Eaton says. “What we want to do is, let’s get as detailed an account as possible so that we can make rational decisions instead of gut feelings and however we’ve been making decisions in the past.

“That’s always been the goal, and that’s always been the objective,” Eaton continues. “It’s never been to shut down Vermilionville. It’s never been to split Bayou Vermilion District and Vermilionville. That’s impossible.”

In the short term, Eaton says he intends to zero in on Vermilionville’s restaurant, La Cuisine de Maman, and its gift shop, both of which have operating losses. In addition, he hopes to grow and expand other revenue streams to make the museum more self-sufficient. Ultimately, Eaton says he would like to see the museum get its share of tax dollars back down to the $400,000 figure BVD provided in 2013. Commissioner Mark Wiltz, also a member of Citizens for a New Louisiana, agrees that Vermilionville’s budget seems bloated, and would like to see its public funding be more performance-based.

Complicating all these decisions is the coronavirus pandemic. Receipts at Vermilionville have been down more than 40 percent in 2020. In response to the downturn, expenses have already been slashed. Approximately 40 hourly employees remain cut from operations. In his proposed 2021 budget, CEO Cheramie is suggesting further cuts: a 4 percent decrease to all Vermilionville staff salaries, as well as a 13 percent cut of his own pay.

“That’s the first step. I appreciate that he took a cut,” Eaton says. “I would like to see some kind of top down, all the way through [cuts].”

Both Eaton and Wiltz have also gotten behind a reorganization of BVD, proposed by Commissioner Leger. (Leger tabled the motion at last week’s meeting.) The proposal would install a new CEO over both departments of the agency, put Cheramie in charge of Vermilionville only and create a parallel position to run river management operations. At the meeting, the plan faced criticism for lacking written job descriptions and detailed salary ranges for the new positions.

“I’m kind of against it because I feel it would cost more money,” board President Michot says. “I’d be real skeptical about any proposed change unless I was convinced that it was gonna really be better than what we have now.”

Michot says he has mostly heard overwhelming support for Vermilionville from the public but that he is open to new ideas, especially ones that will improve the museum’s financial prospects.

“I have a lot of faith in David Cheramie,” he adds. “I think he’s doing a great job, and I don’t mind having things continue as they are.”

Another layer of management with tighter oversight should net savings, according to Eaton. Eaton acknowledged strife between the new BVD commissioners and Vermilionville staff, which he says he has tried to address directly. “I told [the staff] you may not like me now, but you will like me in the end because Vermilionville is going to be a better place by the time my term is done.”