Contemporary Lafayette will either pay for its 20th century growth or pass the cost to our kids and grandkids.
My meeting on the morning of May 20 with Gerd Wuestemann, executive director of the Acadiana Center for the Arts, was delayed by 10 minutes for the most prosaic reason: an upstairs leak. No big deal — just a condensation drip on an A/C conduit. But Wuestemann was in the office and he knew the drill.
The delay was as symbolic as it was substantive. Lafayette committed to the future — a state-of-the-tech $25 million, glass and concrete arts center in our resurgent, historic Downtown — with only a vague idea about how to fund it, which is in so many ways an encapsulation of how Lafayette has grown for the last half century: build it now, worry about maintaining it later. So the chief executive of a showcase cultural treasure, under-staffed and in virtually constant fundraising mode to pay employees, climbs a ladder and stops a leak. This is not to say the AcA is falling apart. Far from it. But it receives just enough cash from Lafayette Consolidated Government to pay the utility bills. Nothing more.
The AcA has a $1.1 million endowment from which it can tap about $45,000 a year in interest without touching the principal. The facility operates on a $2.4 million budget, and funding its ongoing operations — programming, grant distribution, arts in education, exhibitions, staff salaries — is a perpetual shell game, irrespective of the state of the economy and the generosity of donors.
Wuestemann has been working behind the scenes with LCG and others to find a way to permanently fund arts and culture in Lafayette — not just the AcA but virtually all arts/culture, which by any objective measure has a huge return on investment in terms of tourism, feeding the cultural economy and luring young, educated professionals to town.
He has asked the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority for a $750,000 cash infusion to right the AcA’s listing finances. The LPTFA is still mulling the request.
There’s also been talk about levying a tax on rental cars or redirecting funds generated through the Safe Light/Safe Speed program to arts/culture, but those are political decisions with a weak foothold on the moonscape that is Lafayette politics.
“Our community, I think, has clearly expressed over the last few years that culture is a centrally important piece to what makes Lafayette such a great place,” Wuestemann says. “If we invest in a cultural infrastructure better, as a community, we can reap extraordinary benefits.”
LCG, for example, underwrites Festival International de Louisiane to the tune of $72,000 annually plus in-kind services like extra law enforcement. Festival pays the city back by generating more than $1 million in sales taxes each year. That’s a compelling return on investment, yet some elected officials in Lafayette would cut off the city’s funding to Festival for ideological reasons, or because they themselves and their constituents don’t attend the annual event.
This was going to be a story about the AcA. Just the AcA. But an extraordinary thing happened on the way to the corner of Jefferson and Vermilion: By coincidence and independently of one another, on May 7 the Future Needs/Funding Sources committee released its draft report in the afternoon and, that evening, the Return on Infrastructure Investment Tool was presented to the public. I can count on my fingers how many non-bureaucrats attended each.
This was either serendipity or shenanigans, depending on your views on taxes. And I don’t mean taxes with all the ideological baggage associated with the term — simply what we’re willing to pay together as community to accomplish priorities like roads, bridges, drainage, public safety, the arts, recreation. Taxes are inevitable. How we prioritize them and among whom we distribute their financial burdens is the political calculus. And with the remote yet real possibility that we get a Tea Party majority sworn in on the City- Parish Council in January, this is a critical time to settle those priorities.
The Future Needs/Funding Sources committee was empaneled by the City- Parish Council in 2014 and for a year studied the revenues and expenses of LCG, hearing from department heads and getting a look under the hood of LCG’s complex finances — five citizens chaired by a rural sugar cane farmer, joined by a banker, a One Acadiana executive and others, and advised by a Republican and two Blue Dog Democrats. Hardly what any reasonable person would call a cabal of tax-and-spend liberals.
The committee focused on five areas where there is either not enough revenue, i.e. taxes, coming in to sustain them or where the city of Lafayette’s general fund is being tapped to make up shortfalls: drainage, roads and bridges, the parish courthouse and jail, police and fire protection, and parks and recreation.
In broad strokes, the committee’s final recommendation will be that taxes must rise to meet the level of services we’ve come as a community to expect from this shared endeavor we call LCG.
For committee member Jason El Koubi, the CEO of One Acadiana (formerly the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce) and a recent transplant to Lafayette from Baton Rouge, the question of how much more we pay in taxes and whether some LCG services suffer is an ideological one: “At the end of the day it’s going to be a political decision to determine what goes on that list and how big that list is for our community,” he said.
A few hours after the committee released its draft report, consultants hired by LCG as part of the comprehensive planning process presented the Return on Infrastructure Investment Tool, a data-driven portrait of Lafayette that demonstrated in raw numbers how our historic embrace of suburban sprawl over the second half of the 20th century created a perpetual strain on resources and why, in terms of where we commit to investing in infrastructure, high-density, mixed-use areas like Downtown and River Ranch provide the greatest ROI.
Like virtually every American community in the car-crazy 20th century, Lafayette grew out rather than in, abandoning its urban core in favor of far-flung suburbs that require a lot of roads, drainage pipes, electricity, water, public parks and police and fire protection. Developers bore some of the initial costs, and the short-term benefits in jobs and economic activity were real. But we built it, now we have to maintain it.
The consultants weighed Lafayette’s tax revenue against its infrastructure maintenance liabilities and reached a stark conclusion that underscored the Future Needs committee’s findings: A typical household in Lafayette living in a median-priced home ($150,000) would need to pay an additional $3,300 in property taxes just to maintain the roads we currently have. For all the infrastructure — drainage, sewer, water, etc. — that figure rises to about $4,000.
“What we’re trying to leave here is a model — to give you some measurables to look at this stuff. Ultimately I know that there’s politics in your community — there’s politics in every community,” acknowledged consultant Joe Minicozzi.
Unfortunately, politics in Lafayette has had a fever for about seven years that has yet to break, and there’s an outside chance we could have a Tea Party majority memorializing libertarian austerity for at least four years beginning in January. There are three incumbent council members who take their marching orders from the Tea Party, only one of whom right now faces a serious re-election threat. There’s a non-incumbent Tea Party candidate running (so far) unopposed for a fourth seat on the council while another south side seat remains in play. If a Tea Party ideology gets five seats, look out. And they’re in it to win it.
Let’s be mindful that America tried libertarianism. We call it the Gilded Age.
Had Lafayette had a Tea Party majority on the council for the last term or two, would we have the Horse Farm? Would we have abandoned LUS Fiber? Would we have given a penny to Festival and the AcA?
For the council watchers reading this, ask yourselves, what has the Tea Party Caucus on the City-Parish Council been in favor of for the last seven-plus years? Nothing. It is defined by what it is against: a vibrant Lafayette.
This is not an argument for new taxes. Well, it is. But it’s as much an acknowledgement that they’re a necessary element of a civilized, progressive community. Twenty-first-century Lafayette is facing a reckoning for 20th-century Lafayette’s myopia.
Are we willing to pay more to maintain what we have, and to ensure the viability of arts, culture, recreation, not to mention safe roads and bridges, adequate drainage and public safety? Even if we cut what is arguably discretionary spending — the arts, social services, recreation — that would amount to a mere sliver of LCG’s more than $600 million annual budget. The numbers simply don’t work.
Will we decide that funding the things that make a city livable, not just a place to live, is worth the shared sacrifice? Or do we just embrace sprawl and an every-man-for himself future? The October election will be telling.
“I don’t have kids, but if you were to come to me tomorrow and ask me for an increased millage to have better baseball diamonds in our parks, I’d be the first to sign up. I guarantee that,” says the AcA’s Wuestemann. “Why? Because it’s not about me having kids and those kids getting to play there; it’s the fact that I want to live in a community where all the kids have the best possible parks and rec and the best possible schools.”