Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: Why deconsolidation matters

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

Lafayette’s confused form of government is going on trial. The Protect the City Committee, appointed by the City Council, is effectively serving as a kangaroo court. No one should expect acquittal by a committee whose very name implies that the city’s being victimized.

The work is also a precursor aimed at laying the groundwork for a larger debate about splitting up Lafayette Consolidated Government into its two most basic parts — the city and the parish.

To the casual observer of local government, yet another discussion about consolidated governance may seem redundant and academic without any real impact on their life.

But deconsolidation isn’t just a political thought experiment. It’s about making changes to right-size local government, to reestablish proper lines of authority and accountability, and to better empower constituents to understand how their local government operates.

And by doing all this, the effect of deconsolidation will be to make our local governments more responsive to their constituents and better positioned to address the respective needs of the city and parish head on.

Right sizing local government

The fundamental flaw of consolidation is that the city of Lafayette needs more government and the parish needs less.

“More government” might trigger some readers, but hear me out: The city of Lafayette only has a part-time mayor.

Think of it this way: If you had a business pulling in $500 million in revenue every year, would you be comfortable having a part-time CEO managing it? The obvious answer is no, but that’s exactly what’s happening at LCG.

From a city resident’s perspective, that’s crazy. The city pays 80% of the mayor-president’s salary, but it’s not guaranteed to get 80% of his time and attention.

This is just one example of city taxpayers needing more and getting less. On the flip side, the parish is paying for more government than it needs.

While the city has a utility system, telecommunications company, police department, fire department, housing and other community development programs, parks and cultural funding to worry about, parish government’s priorities are more basic: roads, drainage and state-mandated public safety.

The parish doesn’t need the overhead of consolidated government to do that. It doesn’t need a multimillion dollar IT department, for example. It’s possible parish government doesn’t need employees at all. A part-time parish president and an administrative assistant might be enough to manage a parish government that could outsource all of its functions to third parties.

So by deconsolidating LCG, the city can get proper full-time oversight of its complex operations, while the parish can radically reduce its overhead. Both of these changes could have the effect of improving the responsiveness of both city and parish governments while increasing available resources.

Connecting lines of authority and accountability

Perhaps the biggest benefit of deconsolidation is how it can make local government officials more accountable to their constituents.

On the city side of this, it’s all about making sure that only officials elected by the city have control over city assets. Right now, the mayor of the city of Lafayette is determined by a parishwide vote. So the mayor of the city of Lafayette isn’t really all that accountable to the voters of the city of Lafayette since what really matters are the voters of the entire parish, even if they live in Youngsville, Brousard, Carencro, Scott, Duson, or unincorporated areas.

At the same time, even with the city and parish councils split in two, the city still doesn’t have complete control over its finances. Instead, the city is at the mercy of the parish council whenever it wants to change how city dollars are spent through consolidated departments.

The effect of these realities is that whenever the city wants to spend city money on city functions, like its parks, for example, the city has to first get the permission of the Parish Council. It’s this reality that spurred me to write this column about the city being trapped in consolidated government last fall.

And while we haven’t seen it happen yet, the issue cuts both ways. For the parish to spend parish money on parish services through a consolidated department, it needs the permission of the City Council.

The parish also gets the short end of the stick in this arrangement. Far too often the parish’s needs get overlooked because of the demands of managing the city’s expansive operations.

Even a part-time parish president would be better off without managing the needs of another local government agency that’s five times bigger and significantly more complicated.

The juggling act has contributed to parish government’s many festering issues. The old City-Parish Council suffered from the same split of its attention. Back then, council meetings were typically dominated by city issues.

Today, the independent Parish Council is working its way through a broken budget and crumbling infrastructure, both left unaddressed for years while consolidated government tended to city needs while parish needs languished.

Empowering constituents to understand their local government

Democracy needs informed voters, but Lafayette’s convoluted form of quasi consolidated government makes it significantly harder for voters to understand how their local government actually operates. And that creates innumerable challenges to enabling effective government.

Every local debate about political issues is driven by misinformed understanding of how our local government actually operates. Of course, you could argue that this happens with every type of government, and you’d be right. But it’s especially acute at LCG.

Even figuring out something as basic as who is responsible for paying for what can be far from straightforward. That’s because LCG literally uses dozens of different formulas to allocate costs for shared services between the city and the parish.

But it’s not just about money — it’s also about figuring out who’s in charge. For example, last summer after Mayor-President Josh Guillory unilaterally shuttered recreation centers, there was huge public outcry. Most of that outcry happened in Parish Council meetings. But the funding was cut actually from the city budget. This happens often.

As it stands today, it’s effectively impossible for average citizens to understand how their local government operates, which makes it way more difficult for them to engage constructively. And these complexities even trip up elected officials and LCG employees, too. As a result, decisions are often being made without all relevant stakeholders having a full understanding of the basics.

A local government that’s more effective and more accountable

What this all boils down to is that our local government is less effective and less accountable than it would be if city and parish government operated independently.

This has real world impacts on our community.

Would the city still have bad roads despite having the financial capacity to fix them? Would the city still have spent millions building roads outside of the city that primarily benefit the parish? Would the city have spent tens of millions of dollars subsidizing parish government when that money could have been spent on city roads or parks or other city assets?

Would the parish still have kicked the can down the road on its dire financial position for decades on end? Would the parish still not have a comprehensive drainage strategy in place five years after the devastating floods of 2016? Would the parish still not have even started talking about replacing its crumbling jail and courthouse?

To be clear, deconsolidation would not solve all of these problems. Decades of indecision and dysfunction have dug a pretty deep hole.

But the important thing to realize is that neither the city nor the parish has the capacity to address its respective issues head-on if they both remain stuck in consolidated government.

This isn’t just a meaningless debate among the chattering class. Deconsolidation is about restructuring our local government to better deal with our needs.