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

GEOFF DAILY: Why Lafayette can’t afford two superparks

Baseball field with players on it
Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

In this year’s budget, Mayor-President Josh Guillory proposed that the city spend $25 million over the next five years transforming Moore Park and Brown Park into superparks — facilities akin to the sports complexes in Broussard and Youngsville. As City Councilman Pat Lewis put it at a town hall on the future of Brown Park recently, “We have nice facilities and parks in Youngsville, Carencro, Broussard. So why not Lafayette?”

Thanks to two 1-cent citywide sales taxes that bring in more than $50 million per year for capital outlay, the city can afford the upfront cost of building superparks. But the question that’s not been addressed yet is how the city will pay for the ongoing operating subsidies facilities like these typically require.

Lafayette 101
Capital Outlay

Spending on building or acquiring infrastructure such as roads, drainage, buildings or major equipment purchases. The city of Lafayette collects two sales taxes that are used to finance capital spending either through cash payments called pay-as-you-go or bonded debt.

For now, LCG is running with the assumption that these investments won’t require more money.

“We believe the design will produce less maintenance cost (LED lighting, turf fields, better drainage) and lower upkeep while our partnership with the associations will allow the parks to run more efficiently,” LCG PARC Director Hollis Conway told me. “We also believe there will be more revenue generating components available once the parks are finished.”

Yet at this point we don’t really know what will be included in these superparks. Conway says planning is still in the early stages.

LCG hasn’t hired an architect or engineer, or presented a pro forma or business plan to the public, or spent any of the $5 million the City Council appropriated months ago. So it’s hard to examine the financial merits of the administration’s plan since it really only exists as two line items in the city’s capital budget.

But we can analyze the financials of the model superparks in Youngsville and Broussard. Both cost millions more to operate than they generate in revenue and require roughly $2 million per year in tax subsidies to cover their expenses. As context, Lafayette collects less than $3 million total in dedicated taxes to fund all of the city’s parks:

Sports ComplexesRevenueExpensesNet
Youngsville $942,000$3.2 million-$2.2 million
Broussard $702,000$2.5 million -$1.8 million

How do they make this work? Broussard and Youngsville passed new dedicated sales taxes to fund both construction and maintenance: a half-cent tax in Broussard and 1-cent tax in Youngsville. As a result, they both raise enough money each year to properly manage and continue investing in these facilities.

In fact, Youngsville (population: 15,929) collects $800,000 more per year in tax revenue dedicated to its parks than the city of Lafayette (population: 121,374). While Broussard (population: 13,416) collects less overall, on a per capita basis it produces more than seven times what Lafayette dedicates to its parks. Youngsville’s per capita funding for parks is almost 10 times Lafayette’s.

Dedicated parks tax$2.9 million$3.8 million$2.3 million
Per capita parks tax$24$234$175

If Lafayette dedicated as much revenue to its parks as Broussard on a per capita basis, it would collect $21 million per year. Matching Youngsville’s rate would bring the total to nearly $30 million. Instead, the city of Lafayette’s dedicated property tax brings in less than $3 million per year. And it’s responsible for funding the maintenance and operations of 29 parks spread throughout the city. Broussard’s and Youngsville’s dedicated sales tax revenues only have to cover the costs of managing a couple of parks each.

This relative lack of dedicated tax revenue means that any potential increase in spending to operate superparks would have to come from the city’s general fund.

Yet, over his first two years in office, the mayor-president has championed significant cuts to how the city subsidizes its parks, cutting the city’s typical annual general fund subsidy of $3.5 million per year down to $1.5 million. And he’s consistently advocated that the city’s parks need to operate within their means of their dedicated tax and the revenue they self-generate through dues, fees and sponsorships.

Even if the City Council wanted to restore those general fund subsidies, it would be tough to do so. The city’s general fund balance has been cut in half over the first two years of this administration despite record sales tax collections. And despite painful cuts and dozens of layoffs in 2020 and bullish growth projections for 2022 city sales tax revenues, the city’s general fund is still budgeted to operate at a deficit this year. So it can’t be relied on to subsidize superparks.

Lafayette could pass a new parks and rec tax. A quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to parks, recreation and culture, for example, would generate roughly $10 million per year. Enough to subsidize these superparks and more. I actually think city voters would consider supporting something like this if a real plan was put in front of them. But at this point no one’s talking about this as a possibility to even consider let alone get voters to approve.

So that means if LCG builds these superparks and the administration’s bet on lower costs and partnerships is off base, the city will be left without enough money to properly maintain and operate both the new superparks and the city’s other parks. In that scenario, something would have to give, which means some parks just wouldn’t get enough funding and attention.

That worries me tremendously, especially since the mayor-president has proposed that the city fund these superparks with debt, which means the actual price tag will cost millions of dollars more in interest than the $25 million sticker price.

As much as I support investing in our parks, I’m not convinced that it’s a good idea for the city to take on tens of millions in debt to build superparks that may create millions in unfunded liabilities. I fear that doing so could put the financial future of our city’s entire parks system at risk.