COLUMN: Will dysfunction continue to define LCG in 2021?

Large piggy bank broken with a piece laying on a person
Illustration by Peter DeHart

With 2020 mostly in our rearview mirror, Lafayette Consolidated Government still has a lot on its plate. It’s clear now that there is a Cold War between the mayor-president and the City Council. The question is when will it turn hot? That tension is behind a lot of the big issues our local government is facing. So let’s take a look at some of the key questions and dramas hanging over 2021.

Will the mayor-president stop marginalizing the City Council?

The Guillory administration has chosen to pursue a maximalist interpretation of Lafayette’s Home Rule Charter when it comes to executive power, effectively treating the City Council’s authority as a nuisance that can be ignored whenever possible with little to no consequence. Not surprisingly, this has created tension between the administration and the City Council.

The list is long and growing of times where Mayor-President Josh Guillory has ignored, fought or circumvented the authority of the City Council in his first year.

He refused to defend the city’s economic development districts, eliminated parks and rec positions and closed facilities, spent city dollars on the LUS/Fiber witch hunt, fought tooth and nail against the City Council securing its own legal counsel, and found a legal loophole to sign a secretive contract for cameras.

What happens next is unclear. Guillory has given no indication of a desire to start working with the council on the front end of his policies. It may well be time for the City Council to do more to stand up for itself. It has levers to pull. But how far the City Council is willing and able to go to defend itself from being overrun is uncertain at this point.

Will the parish ever get its financials on sound footing?

The parish has been essentially broke for decades, so why should anything be different in 2021? Well, there are a couple of things going on that could finally shift the parish’s financial trajectory for the better this year.

The first is the simple fact that we’ve reached the end of that proverbial road. Fund balances have been raided, budgets have been cut, parks have been offloaded, and now there’s not really anywhere else to turn other than raising taxes or dramatically reducing services.

The second is that Parish Councilmember Kevin Naquin has put his colleagues on notice that these issues cannot be ignored any longer. He proposed a new parishwide 0.2% sales tax that could generate $12 million per year in new revenue, which would dramatically improve the parish’s financial position. He then paused consideration of the new tax to allow for the community to step up with any alternative ideas for how to fix the parish’s budget.

By this summer we should have a clear sense if anyone has any other viable ideas. Parish finances can’t hold on much longer.

Will the private sector step up to fund recreation and culture?

The ultimate impact of Guillory’s slash-and-burn of public funding for recreation and culture likely won’t be felt for years to come. That’s because the greatest threat it poses is making our community less attractive to talent. But 2021 will nevertheless be a key year in determining the trajectory of this impact, or if his radically optimistic reliance on private sector funding will work.

Guillory has painted a rosy vision that Lafayette’s quality of life will be funded by innovative public-private partnerships and through local philanthropists stepping up to fill the funding gaps Guillory has created.

But I have serious doubts about the viability of his plan, both because of the historical limits of philanthropic giving in Lafayette and the headwinds any fundraising effort faces in a down economy when there is more need for donations among local nonprofits than ever.

This year could be a make-or-break year for the programs he cut. And it’s very likely that rather than doing more with less — as Guillory likes to say — Lafayette’s recreational and cultural institutions may end up delivering less with less, with some at risk of closing altogether.

Can LUS and Fiber finally move on?

By all accounts, the LUS witch hunt should be over. State regulators dropped the matter. The outgoing district attorney declined to pursue charges. And we haven’t heard a peep from the FBI.

The City Council has clearly stated its desire to move on and focus on securing qualified permanent directors of LUS and LUS Fiber. Yet Guillory has continued rattling his saber about what he believes to have been inappropriate or illegal actions. This saga should be over, but it’s not clear if Guillory is ready to let it go. And his apparent reluctance to do so could threaten LUS Fiber’s financial viability.

The time is past due to put this drama behind us and focus on the many big issues in front of LUS and Fiber, like figuring out how best to upgrade LUS’s infrastructure without raising rates, while also determining how to keep LUS Fiber solvent in the face of increasing competition. In 2021, I’d like to see our city worry more about what needs to happen to navigate the next decade rather than continue to try to relitigate what happened over the last one.

What’s going to happen to sales and property tax revenue?

What happens with these two primary sources of revenue for city and parish government could have a huge impact on what happens next with local government’s finances.

Last year, for the first time in decades, the total assessed value of property in Lafayette dropped. This has caused revenue from some millages to drop while others stayed the same but only because local taxing authorities increased millage rates to avoid revenue shortfalls. Sales tax revenue last year took a nosedive at the beginning of the pandemic, but retail sales ended up bouncing back in a big way, leading to one of the best years on record.

The current operating budget for the city assumes that 2021 is going to suffer from a huge shortfall in sales tax revenue, losing tens of millions of dollars. Guillory used those projections to champion enormous cutbacks in spending, including erasing more than $100 million in capital outlay spending on things like roads and drainage from the city’s budget. But that sales tax revenue shortfall may not happen after all l if current trends hold. If that’s the case, what will the City Council do with millions more dollars than it’s currently budgeted to spend?

Conversely, if property tax revenue falls again, the Parish Council has committed to not increasing any parish millages again. With parish government already underfunded and unable to cover the costs of all of its obligations, it literally can’t afford to lose any more revenue.

There’s a lot at stake here. What happens next with sales and property tax revenue could make the difference between city and parish government being solvent or being forced to cut services dramatically.

Will the push for deconsolidation continue building momentum?

If splitting up Lafayette’s combined city and parish government is ever going to happen, this will be a key year for building momentum. The “Protect the City Committee” created by the City Council will meet over the next six months and set the stage for whatever comes next. But we’re not likely to see anything formal before voters this year.

There has been growing support for the city to get its own full-time mayor, the argument being that creating separate city and parish councils didn’t go far enough to give the city the autonomy it needs. At the same time, I’m hearing people talk about how the parish would be better off on its own as well, as that would allow it to explore its options, including radically streamlining parish government by outsourcing most of its functions.

To have any chance of securing enough community support to tear the existing charter up in time to implement this new form of local government prior to the next municipal elections in 2023, this movement has to make significant progress in 2021.

The Protect the City Committee faced no opposition when it was created. But Guillory has candidly flip-flopped on his campaign support for giving the city its own full-time mayor, saying he’s come to believe that consolidated government makes Lafayette stronger, though he has yet to present a cohesive argument for why he believes that. It’s not yet clear if he would actively fight deconsolidation.

Either way, if we want to see LCG deconsolidated, 2021 will be a key year to getting on track to make that happen.