Jan. 3, 2017 10:07 AM

Drainage issues in Lafayette Parish underscore why “our parish government” is failing everyone.

We live in silos in Lafayette Parish: six municipalities with separate budgets, separate public works and, oftentimes, separate priorities. But in between the city limits of Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Lafayette, Scott and Youngsville is a huge swath of real estate — the unincorporated parish — where roughly 70,000 people reside.

That’s nearly 30 percent of the population of Lafayette Parish living in that nether place between city limits, an unincorporated redheaded stepchild that relies upon a woefully under-funded government — the parish side of city-parish “consolidated” government. I cast “consolidated” in quotes because Lafayette Parish is “consolidated” more or less in name only. Many in Lafayette Parish, whether they live in one of the small towns surrounding Lafayette, within the city of Lafayette or the unincorporated parish, still don’t get that Lafayette Consolidated Government is two governments — the city of Lafayette and the parish, i.e., unincorporated Lafayette Parish — and the charter, our parish wide constitution, prohibits spending city money on parish needs and vice versa, although the city of Lafayette has, since “consolidation” came into being 20 years ago, financially underwritten the parish part of LCG in one way or another.

Just a few years ago — and the figures have probably changed little — the population of unincorporated Lafayette Parish was greater than the combined populations of Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville. Yet there isn’t enough money in the parish side of the LCG budget for the “parish” things we’re required by the charter to do together through our tax dollars: the parish courthouse and jail, the district attorney and sheriff, road and bridge maintenance and, glaringly of recent, drainage. So it seemed inevitable following a round of heavy rains the first weekend in December that a figurative dam would burst.

Enter Ken Ritter. His community still reeling from the historic rain and flooding of mid-August and constituents freaking out anew after the December downfalls had water lapping at their doors again, the mayor of Youngsville lashed out at LCG: “I along with the citizens of Youngsville are tired of hearing that the parish does not have the funds to maintain their channels,” Ritter said in a press conference. “Our residents demand better, and I am no longer willing to be the singular scapegoat for the inability to properly maintain the channels and the coulees that are the responsibility of our parish government.”

Ritter’s frustration is understandable, but it’s misplaced. It casts “our parish government” as an “other,” yet everyone who lives in Lafayette Parish, whether they live in one of the towns or in unincorporated Lafayette Parish, is a resident of the parish and a stakeholder in “our parish government.” Moreover, “our parish government” really is teetering on insolvency.

Lagging sales tax collections are a recent phenomenon of the drop in oil prices, but parish revenue has always been an exercise in diminishing returns; towns in the parish including Lafayette have, since the advent of “consolidation,” raced to annex any parcel of unincorporated Lafayette Parish where businesses and the sales taxes they generate are located, diverting those sales taxes to a city budget and away from the parish side of city-parish government, leaving the parish continually starved for revenue.

Mayor Ritter’s frustration with ineffective “parish” government is shared by many in Lafayette Parish, especially and understandably by those thousands of folks who live in unincorporated Lafayette Parish and see in their daily lives the potholes going unfilled and the bridges settling into dangerous disrepair.

Photo by Robin May

Drainage is a glaring example of parish government’s funding crisis because it’s been in the front of everyone’s mind for the last several months. Property owners across Lafayette Parish pay a 3.34 mills tax to maintain and keep clear hundreds of miles of coulees, canals and other drainage infrastructure — to move water, mainly to the Vermilion River and out to sea. It generated $6.8 million in the 2015-16 budget year (that ended Oct. 30), yet the parish spent $7.7 million just for maintenance, not capital improvements. The difference between what the parish collected for drainage and what it spent, $884,500, came out of the parish general fund, which is financed by sales taxes.

But sales tax collections in unincorporated Lafayette Parish are down 20 percent, and the shortfall has to be made up elsewhere in the budget. Most recently, social service agencies and arts/culture nonprofits, which traditionally receive a small amount of financial help from LCG, had their appropriations cut. And council members in late December warned of more budget slashing on the parish side of city-parish government. The big festivals — Acadiens and International, which generate millions in sales taxes — took big hits and, in the case of Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, fared better than it would have otherwise at the expense of other arts/culture agencies, which had their allocations cut even further in an effort to soften the blow to Acadiens.

Some of the “parish” reps on the City- Parish Council, those four council members who mainly represent the smaller towns and unincorporated parish and who have traditionally been a parochial bunch, have come around to the idea that “parish” is what we do together, and that what we’re doing together just isn’t cutting it.

At the final City-Parish Council meeting of 2016, on Dec. 20, council members broached the idea of asking voters next fall to approve a tax to support parish operations. Councilman Jay Castille, one of the “parish” reps who understands the dire straits the council is trying to navigate, referred to the possible tax referendum as, to paraphrase, “saving the parish.” Soon, he and three other councilmen, fellow “parish” rep Kevin Naquin and city reps Kenneth Boudreaux and Bruce Conque, will host a series of public meetings after pouring through the recommendations released earlier this year by a citizen committee, the Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee. Its May report recommended new tax revenue to keep parish operations afloat.

That’s easier said than done. Voters parish wide soundly rejected a tax proposal in 2006 that would have funded capital improvements such as roads and drainage. Convincing them next fall, when the local economy is likely to still be much worse than it was in 2006, before the Great Recession and drop in oil prices, is a tall order. Add to that a virulent “no new taxes!” sentiment ascendant for the last several years, in many cases from folks who live in rural, unincorporated Lafayette Parish or in the small towns yet clog our roads with traffic heading into Lafayette for work and shopping — the very reason we’re in this pickle today. It is what it is, as they say.

Lafayette, the city and the parish, embraced sprawl in the 20th century. Now we have hundreds of miles of drainage canals, roads and other infrastructure servicing all those far-flung subdivisions to maintain, but not enough money to do it. We built ourselves a Pandora’s box when a majority of voters parishwide approved “consolidation” in 1994. (It went into effect in 1996.) The box has been open for years, and what has issued forth — rancor among the towns over annexations, the district attorney filing suit against LCG over funding, competing lawsuits between Lafayette and Broussard over water, a lack of funds for critical infrastructure, the blame game over localized flooding, all of it — is a result of the imperfect form of “consolidation” we as a parish chose.

In Greek mythology, Pandora managed to get the box closed in time to keep hope inside. That’s what we in Lafayette Parish will have to rely on in the near term: hope that we find the resolve to fix “parish” government before we’re all under water, figuratively or otherwise.

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