Somewhere around 9 p.m. on April 9 we’ll know: Is Lafayette Parish willing to increase its property taxes for our public school system? That’s when the election returns will begin coming in, and those returns will tell us much about our determination as a community to face some crucial issues, namely how to summon the infrastructure fairy from her magical perch to flutter down and conjure new roads and a desperately needed bridge across the Vermilion River.
The Lafayette Parish School System is asking property owners to take on an additional 16 mills — about $21 more per month for the average home in the parish — to generate roughly $370 million to build new schools, upgrade technology and maintain current facilities.
Parish voters in 2011 shot down by a 69- 31 percent margin a $560 million property tax to fund the first phase of a $1.1 billion facilities master plan, deciding the bite was too big, the chew too long. But, as District 6 School Board Member Justin Centanni told me recently, this board is hoping $370 million is more digestible, and it’s earmarked for projects that can be started and in many cases completed within the term of the current board.
But the school system’s supplication, necessary though it may be to replace outdated, insufficient campuses and wed the rest to the 21st century, will come amid a fusillade of grim economic news for Lafayette Parish. (Joel Robideaux, we hope you knew what you were getting yourself into when you ran for mayor-president.)
Bloomberg Business reported in mid- December that oil speculators are buying options contracts that will pay out only if crude slides as low as $15 a barrel in 2016. Investors, in other words, are betting on an even deeper slump in the energy sector, which, although Lafayette diversified considerably following the mid-80s collapse in energy prices, is still the prime lubricant for the local economy.
Oil at this writing is trading at $36 per barrel, down from north of $100 just a couple of years ago. Remember a couple of years ago? Lafayette was on a tear, breaking records for retail sales, sales tax collections, new home starts and home sales. We hardly blinked at the Great Recession. Our acres were ever ripe for groundbreakings with golden shovels. Now come the faint, familiar strains of Willie Nelson: Turn out the lights, the party’s over.
In December the trend was confirmed: Retail sales — and the sales tax collections that help fund local government and the school system — are tumbling. October retail sales, the most recent figures available, were down 11 percent from October of 2014. Consider October a beginning point for a more precipitous decline in tax collections; the first 10 months of 2015 were down 5.5 percent from 2014, yet October showed a double digit decline. Expect that trend to continue well into if not all the way through 2016.
The Louisiana Workforce Commission reported in early December that metro Lafayette — Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes — leads the nation in job losses over the last year, shedding 4,300 jobs, almost all of them in energy or in sectors that rely on it, between October 2014 and October 2015. By fall 2015 Lafayette’s unemployment rate stood, on wobbly legs, at 6.8 percent. That’s second only to Shreveport, which has finally sucked the marrow out of the Haynesville Shale.
The U.S. unemployment rate at this writing is 5 percent; Louisiana’s is 6.2 and Lafayette’s is 6.8. That’s a 180-degree reverse from just a few years ago, and that’s the context voters across the parish will bring with them when they step into the privacy of their voting booth on April 9 and decide whether to increase their tax burden.
The school system’s counterparts in Lafayette Consolidated Government will be watching those April 9 returns closely: They will be a bellwether for taxpayers’ willingness to fork over the funding not just for critical infrastructure projects in the future but to maintain what’s already built and in need of maintenance. The availability of funding for what we already have is dwindling fast, notably for unincorporated Lafayette Parish.
Former Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard told the council in July that LCG funding for rural roads and bridges is projected to drop to $1.5 million in 2016 and then to $750,000 next year. That’s barely enough for just a handful of overlay projects, yet the parish has identified more than $50 million in needs, from overlaying roads and improving drainage to repairing bridges. One scenario Blanchard cited for addressing this ghastly shortfall in funding, in lieu of an infrastructure fairy, is to grind paved roads into gravel and to simply close rural bridges.
“Addressing traffic issues will be a major challenge in unincorporated Lafayette Parish,” Bruce Conque, the former District 6 councilman who won a third term to the seat in the November runoff, told me around Christmas. “Parish government is in a financial crisis; there is little money available for needed infrastructure improvements.”
Until we catch up — if we catch up — it will forever be a case of our public enterprises queueing up, hat in hand, to beg a pittance from taxpayers. The LPSS is first in line. LCG will not seek a sales or property tax in 2016, even one in the undeniably successful model of the temporary, dedicated airport tax that expired last November after eight months in effect. If the school board gets its $370 million, and even if voters reject it, consolidated government will wait. It must.
That’s not to say infrastructure projects won’t happen. Many have already been budgeted and are in the pipeline. But even as LCG acquires land along South City Parkway with a goal of ultimately bridging the Vermilion and connecting Johnston Street to Kaliste Saloom south of Ambassador Caffery, there is no money for a bridge.
This is also not to say that LCG will not live within its means. Former Mayor- President Joey Durel and the City-Parish Council with few exceptions showed laudable restraint over the last several years.
“It’s about discipline. We’ve been there before, and I think we did well,” Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, 2015’s council chairman, told me recently. “I don’t see any major concerns as it relates to us doing what we need to do to make sure we don’t get into any financial crisis locally.”
But with a new administration and a host of new department heads moving into offices at LCG, Boudreaux said he anticipates “a slow year” in terms of new initiatives. Besides, local government will be adjusting to the new short-term reality of falling revenue even as demand for services continues unabated.
Most indicators point to 2016 as a year of treading water. We won’t drown, but we will have to maintain the discipline to swim with this rip current of depressed oil prices, not against it, until it’s safe to head to shore.
Relative to other urban parishes in the state, Lafayette’s tax burden is manageable. Yet as Boudreaux acknowledged in late December, Lafayette will have to talk about taxes over the next few years to address critical needs, not the least of which is maintaining what we already have.
“We can’t be afraid of the big ‘T’ word,” Boudreaux said. “We have to at least put it out there.”
Oh, and there is no infrastructure fairy.