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

COLUMN: Lafayette has one more shot at getting ARPA right

Icicles hang from a guardrail.
ARPA money could be used to help social service agencies address homelessness in Lafayette.

The outgoing administration left the new City and Parish councils a gift: $28 million in federal funds they have to spend by the end of 2024.

It’s what’s left of the combined $86 million distributed to the city of Lafayette and Lafayette Parish in the American Rescue Plan Act. Stemming from the pandemic, the money was intended to help local governments fill funding shortfalls, invest in economic recovery and provide services to people in need.

Lafayette’s city and parish governments didn’t have any funding shortfalls; they had record sales tax collections. And Lafayette set aside less than 5% of this money for projects related to services for those most impacted by the pandemic.

Instead Lafayette Consolidated Government prioritized infrastructure. Roads, roundabouts, drainage projects, parks, lighting and public buildings. But that strategy hit a snag. Even at an allegedly new pace of government, infrastructure still takes time. So despite the ambition we couldn’t spend the money fast enough.

ARPA rules require that all this money not only be budgeted but also contracted by the end of this year. Otherwise you have to give whatever money’s remaining back.

And there’s at least $28 million worth of ARPA funds budgeted for projects that are at risk of not being contracted by that year-end deadline.

The outgoing administration moved to swap funds earmarked for maintenance to pay for ARPA projects and move most of the money budgeted for ARPA projects to pay for the maintenance. I say “most,” as the budget for Downtown drainage ends up taking a multi-million dollar haircut in this process.

Instead of allowing that ordinance to get introduced, the new administration asked the councils to defer it until the first meeting in February, so they could reconsider what the best course of action is with that money.

This is a remarkable opportunity for the new councils and the new administration: There’s $28 million that can be spent on a wide range of projects outside of the normal budget. The only caveat being that they have to be able to get it budgeted and contracted by the end of this year, and fully spent by the end of 2026.

I’ve long argued that more of this money should be spent on helping people in need and on catalytic projects that can spur economic growth. ARPA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives and on projects that can make a big impact on our community’s future.

Here are the major categories of projects this money is intended for, according to the federal government:

  • Fight the pandemic and support families and businesses struggling with its public health and economic impacts
  • Maintain vital public services, even amid declines in revenue resulting from the crisis
  • Build a strong, resilient, and equitable recovery by making investments that support long-term growth and opportunity

In other words, there’s a lot of flexibility in what we can do. Here’s how I’d start trying to eat this elephant:

Double check the math on the lost revenue calculation

One of the ways this money can be spent is on replacing lost tax revenue. That calculation is actually based on projected growth, not actual. Even though our local governments didn’t lose revenue, they can recover money “lost” due to less-than-projected growth. Meaning there’s some amount of this money that can just be put into the city and parish general funds. If the past administration didn’t fully account for this, then that amount of money could be moved, eliminating the deadline and any restrictions on how it could be spent. We’d still want to figure out how to spend it, but we wouldn’t be in a rush.

Do something about the homeless crisis … anything

Lafayette has a growing homeless crisis. More people are living on the streets, sleeping in the dark corners of our community, filling our jails and our hospitals. This week, local shelters have surged to meet demand. And they're again telling us that this problem is much bigger than the resources we've thrown at it.

Yet LCG has not meaningfully engaged on this issue in recent history. We will never again have this opportunity to invest significant resources into our capacity for responding to homelessness. It’s time for Lafayette to step up and do something meaningful.

Find at least two economic catalyst projects to invest in

The numbers don’t lie: Lafayette’s economy is not booming. We’re not crashing, but we’re just treading water. I remember former City-Parish President Joey Durel once saying, “Communities are either growing or they’re dying.”

Well, right now Lafayette isn’t really growing, and that’s a problem. That’s why I’d love to see us intentionally seeking out catalytic projects that have the potential to spur follow-on growth. A project like the Louisiana Music Museum is a perfect example, or efforts to support the growth of Northside startups. Beyond the direct impacts that these projects could have, they’ll also be valuable symbols of hope for a better future. I want our leaders to give all the young people who are leaving Lafayette a reason to doubt their decision. Because Lafayette is an exciting community where great things are happening to make our future brighter than our past.

This $28 million in ARPA funding is a lot of money that could be spent on a lot of worthwhile initiatives. We’ve got a second chance to get this right. Let’s not blow it.