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

Column: Carol Ross is right. LCG’s audit is a ‘horror show’

Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

Conservative stalwart Carol Ross said it best on her radio show earlier this week. The latest annual audit at Lafayette Consolidated Government is a “horror show.” That’s exactly what you’ll find when you crack it open and read the auditor’s findings.

It turns out Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s “new pace of government” is predicated on making dubious legal arguments to justify ignoring local, state and federal laws. Through this audit, we have more evidence of how this administration’s hubris is threatening both the city and parish of Lafayette.

According to the auditor, the Guillory administration broke at least four laws on the spoil banks caper alone:

  • Louisiana public bid law when it ballooned an as-needed excavation contract tenfold to $3.7 million without putting it out for bid
  • Lafayette’s home rule charter when it acquired land in St. Martin Parish without getting an ordinance approved by the City Council
  • Lafayette’s sales tax dedications when it spent city sales tax money outside of the city
  • State law when it paid higher than the appraised amount to acquire this land

It’s really hard to figure out what aspects of this project were legal. Thumbing their noses at so many laws makes you wonder what other legal constraints members of this administration are blithely ignoring — and what other liabilities that disregard is creating.

And this is just one project. Another troubling group of findings in this audit is this administration’s penchant for spending millions of dollars of public money without getting proper paperwork in place. According to the independent auditor, there are multiple contract files for various projects that don’t include complete information to support purchases, missing key documentation like specifications for projects and appraisals, which are required to determine how much LCG can pay for the land it buys.

While the audit doesn’t detail out exactly how much money has been spent this way, it does cite one specific example, where this administration paid a contractor more than $1 million for a project without any signed contract in place. Even if what LCG did was legal, as it argues, it’s hard to see how the public’s best interest is served by cutting million dollar checks without some minimum standard of documentation in place.

And that theme continues in other areas. LCG ignored requirements to get proper cost estimates for the Bayou Vermilion detention pond projects. The auditors believe it abused an emergency declaration to circumvent public bid requirements for the Lake Farm Road detention ponds and used parish drainage money to put out the Scott tire fire.

Perhaps the most egregious violation of the public’s trust is the $19.9 million loan Guillory unilaterally gave to the parish to pay for ill-fated Bayou Vermilion Flood Control detention ponds. The parish was supposed to pay for those ponds with coronavirus funds and with state capital outlay. But because the administration didn’t follow federal bid laws it couldn’t use coronavirus money. And because the state has concerns that the administration didn’t follow state law, it’s been withholding capital outlay money.

The problem is that Guillory used city money to dig these holes and now the parish can’t afford to pay this money back. If the state money doesn’t come through, the parish will be functionally bankrupt because it doesn’t have $19.9 million lying around. Even if that state money does make its way into the parish’s coffers, the auditor argues there’s still the issue to resolve of the city missing out on the investment returns it should be earning on that cash had the parish not spent it.

If those returns are just 3%, that’s $600,000 and counting of revenue the city has lost out on over the last year. Given that the City Council never authorized giving a no-interest loan to the parish for these projects, I would think that means at a minimum the parish owes the city some amount of interest on this capital. But that $600,000 would be a huge blow to the parish’s dwindling $1 million general fund balance.

So there’s a $20 million sword hanging over parish finances. And the mayor-president spent city money on parish projects without the City Council’s approval and without a clear plan to make the city whole for the revenue we’re losing out on. Put another way, the administration has either wasted hundreds of thousands of parish money on interest payments, or it’s cost the city hundreds of thousands in investment returns. Either way these actions have put parish finances in tremendous peril while completely abusing the city’s stronger cash position.

What we’re dealing with here is a repeated pattern of behavior where this administration just decides what it wants to do and then invents legal justifications to back up those actions, regardless of the risks those potentially illegal actions incur.

Of course the administration is trying to claim that it hasn’t done anything illegal at all. But we need to realize that now we’re in a situation where it’s not just some blogger in his pajamas saying their actions are illegal. It’s the auditor with 35 years of experience in this type of government performance auditing that LCG paid to double check its work.

Basically what the administration wants us to believe is that it knows better than LCG’s auditor, and the state’s legislative auditor (which is investigating the Guillory administration), and a host of federal agencies. That Guillory is right and everyone else is wrong. That this is all much ado about nothing, and we should all just move on and let the administration just keep doing what it’s doing.

That would be a foolhardy thing to do. Clearly there’s something fundamentally broken within this administration. Its inability to follow the law isn’t something we can afford to let continue unchecked. It has already pushed the parish to the brink of financial insolvency and repeatedly abused the systems that are in place to protect public funds.

Lafayette simply can’t afford to allow this lawless, reckless behavior to continue. It’s long past time that our City Council and Parish Council step up and do their jobs to protect the public’s interests. And as a community we need to step up to hold all of them accountable.