Cover Story

Midterm Test

Two years after his election, City-Parish President Joey Durel faces tough questions on Lafayette's future and finances.

At his annual President's Report on the State of Lafayette Parish last year, Joey Durel faced a different community than he does today. As Lafayette Consolidated Government's top official, he was urging support for Lafayette Utilities System's fiber-to-the-home initiative, which had yet to be put to a public vote. He also faced tough decisions on budget cuts over social services and was contending with a number of lawsuits involving allegations of excessive force by police officers, a problem now exacerbated by new lawsuits filed in the past year.

Since then, local residents voted fiber in, but BellSouth continued to wage a battle in court. The lawsuit Durel inherited over back pay to police and fire personnel ended in a $15 million judgment against LCG. He's got a plan to thwart BellSouth's actions, but none for paying back the $15 million.

And that's only the beginning of what 2005 held for the leader.

The dual devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to our east and west wreaked untold financial havoc on the state and increased Lafayette's population overnight, adding to growing traffic problems ' with no new money to address them. But the financial condition of the municipality is not enough to get Durel down. He sees grand opportunity in a potential deal to convert UL's horse farm into a community park, and he's hoping to offset the need for higher taxes with a better, smarter planning philosophy.

After two years in office he's able to address just about any issue thrown his way. In an hour-long interview with The Independent Weekly, Durel spoke candidly about the issues and challenges facing a parish, region and state forever altered by two monster storms.

You met with famed architect/urban planner Andrés Duany, who is on the Louisiana Recovery Authority, when he was in town two weeks ago, and he had hoped Lafayette would be included in the comprehensive planning for hurricane-damaged areas like Cameron and Vermilion parishes because it's been a "receiver city." Is there a chance that could happen?

My understanding now [from LRA] is that they are only using areas that were in the devastation. Unfortunately, he has been directed to only use areas that were seriously impacted by the storms. Supposedly Lafayette's already been ruled out. Baton Rouge, Monroe, other communities are not going to get it.

Any chance we'll hire him as a consultant?

That is always a possibility, but he and I did not discuss it.

Do we know the latest figures on evacuees here? What hard evidence do you base that on?

FEMA. The last number I heard, which was a few weeks ago, FEMA is still dealing with something like 4,000 or 4,500 heads of households. Whatever the number came out to be they figured the number would be anywhere from 15,000-25,000 people still in Lafayette.

What's the primary challenge in this overnight growth?

The most obvious, visible challenge for everybody is traffic, which has just multiplied a problem we already had. They say congestion typically in Lafayette was 20 minutes and [after the storm] it was being measured 45 minutes.

What is the price tag on road improvements and drainage projects identified as immediate? Is there funding for those?

It's $154 million already on the books. As I understand it, we have about $5 million in authority left. There's additional funding potential because we still have the ability to go to the voters and get some more bond authorization but not anywhere close to the amount of money we need to do all of those.

Our needs are growing, and the state is less able to assist; now we're finding out we haven't been getting our fair share back from the gasoline taxes. How long have we been short-changed?

We got the least amount of money from the state. For 20 years we have gotten less money than anybody else. We just learned this about a week ago. I had [LCG Traffic and Transportation Director] Tony Tramel's group do some research, and you know they looked at it from per capita. â?¦ In the total dollar amount we were last. You had communities like Monroe, Alexandria and others that were smaller than Lafayette that received more than we did.

Were you surprised?

We were all surprised.

Then what is our local delegation doing for us in Baton Rouge?

I'm asking the same question. Understand that from 1980-2000 we had very few of the delegation we have right now, and the ones that were in there were probably brand new to it. Our offer to the delegation was: "What can we do as a local community, as local elected officials to help them in Baton Rouge?" I think until the Acadiana delegation starts really working together and starts really voting as a block on many issues then all of Acadiana is going to continue to lose.

What can we do now?

For the last two years we've tried to eliminate jobs and things that were unnecessary to running this government, but you know if we cut this government to the bone where it was really less efficient than it is right now we're not going to be able to build roads. It's not like we're that fat. Then you have to look at the issues that nobody has any control over.

The price of gasoline when we came into office was probably like $1.60 ' $1.80; now it's hit $3. I believe they said asphalt was $32 a ton when we came in; it's now $65 a ton. We can do half the road overlays today that we could have done two years ago with the same amount of money. Concrete has been going up in recent years. Most of this is because of China, and some of it is because of the hurricanes.

Will you work to change the portion of the state constitution that prohibits a local-option gas tax?

I've been told over and over again by very experienced people from the Legislature that will never happen, and that's one of the things that disappoints me the most right now since the hurricanes. We were all so optimistic, believe it or not, after the hurricanes that we were going to have a new Louisiana, that the politics were going to be different, that people were going to step up to the plate and get out of the box, and I don't see anything happening. You'd think that giving local communities the ability to take care of themselves would be the most paramount thing on their mind. You'd think that would be the first thing they would look at is how can we let the local communities take care of themselves so we don't have to bail everybody out.

Despite those obstacles you're still going to push the local delegation?

Yeah. I'd love to see the Acadiana delegation get behind it and lead the way on it. Let the rest of the Legislature vote it down.

How would it go over with local voters?

I think people know the money is staying home in the place they're paying the taxes. Lafayette's the ninth most conservative city in America; it may never vote for local-option tax, but if Monroe or some other city in the state would want to do it and they could move ahead, then great, that's less of a burden on the state.

So will any additional traffic relief come immediately, as in this year?

Tony Tramel's working on intelligent traffic systems ' smarter lights and things like that. We do get a little help from the federal government with that. [U.S. Sen.] David Vitter's office has helped a lot with that, and I think [U.S. Rep.] Charlie Boustany's office. We're even talking right now about building Ambassador Caffery South as a two-lane road instead of a four-lane road so at least you're moving some traffic. So there are some other roads, Rue de Belier, extending that as a two-lane road. We can't immediately do as elaborate a job as we would have liked. Instead of making it just one job, it's going to be two or three jobs over a period of years.

And where does the Verot School widening fit into that plan?

It now looks like Ambassador Caffery will be ready faster. I'm not sure if you could get any bulldozers out there in 2006, but it could go out to bid in 2006.

Should roads be built to alleviate traffic for people who know full well they are moving into a congested area of town or should they be built primarily for economic development reasons like getting in and out of town, or an alternate route to the mall?

I think they all go hand in hand. Congestion can discourage economic development, and you know you're also assuming that every bit of congestion is a result of people who live in neighborhoods. It is a combination of everything. People who are coming to certain areas to shop in town and try to get back home, and maybe out of the parish, so it's a combination of a lot of things, and I see them all as being equally important.

Impact fees, or development fees, are expenditures that developers are required to make as a precondition to approval of their project. Such fees could be used to alleviate traffic. Why doesn't Lafayette have them?

If we're going to address problems in a serious way you have to put everything on the table, even if it's a little controversial. If we were ever to address impact fees I don't think it's something that should be added to the price of a house, for example. I think it should be a special line item at the closing of a sale to where the people who were buying it would know that this is something the government's required ' something that's required in this community ' and not something that's caused the developer to have to raise the price.

Would it only be for problems or issues directly related to that specific development?

At least within a certain region, that's right. And I also believe it's going to be important that Lafayette as a parish adopts that.

Under Walter Comeaux's administration, the council routinely rolled back millages, including those for roads and bridges, drainage district, the courthouse and jail, etc., which kept voters happy but created some shortfalls, especially in terms of funds available for road and other infrastructure improvements. What is your position on this issue?

I have gone on record several times, and I will always [support] rolling millages forward. I don't see it as a tax increase. I see it as maintaining what the voters authorized. If it's a millage that's dedicated to the jail, it's going to the jail. If it's dedicated to going to LEDA, it's going to LEDA. If it's dedicated to going to parks and recreation, it's going to parks and recreation. It's a question of whether or not you want to run government like a business or you want to run it like a politician.

It's unrealistic to think we can run Lafayette government on the same dollar amount we're collecting today. There's not a business in Lafayette that over the last 20-25 years hasn't raised its prices. [When millages were rolled back], we did collect more money, but not from you [even though] your $100,000 house went to $125,00. There were more $100,000 houses in Lafayette, and each of those houses was [paying property taxes], so we were still getting more taxes, but in my opinion that's just barely enough to keep up with inflation ' not enough to build the new roads and build the new infrastructure and schools. Lafayette is growing, and we should be getting more taxes.

Four millages are expiring this year for the health unit, library, roads and bridges, and the Bayou Vermilion District, and more are set to expire next year. You have an opportunity when you ask voters to renew them to also request an increase. Is that a strong possibility?

Very, very likely.

Speaking of infrastructure, new comprehensive FEMA flood maps several years in the making will be released in March, potentially affecting hundreds of homeowners by putting them in flood zones. They'll now have to carry flood insurance, and we'll have to build storm water detention and retention facilities, which arguably LCG should have been doing all along. What will that cost LCG, and how much is LCG to blame for not requiring flood mitigation on street projects in the parish?

I can't speak a whole lot to the historical part of what LCG has done, but I think there has been some engineering that has been done that should have never been allowed. There have been some mistakes made in the past, and all we can do is live with what we have. As far as homes, as I understand there will be some homes that will end up in flood planes that weren't in flood zones before. ... Doesn't some of that change with the growth? Don't some of the patterns change?

Might we be looking at lawsuits against LCG?

I don't think so. You can't take one subdivision and say this changed all of Lafayette. You can look back on things that were done 25 years ago and say it was a mistake because of new information we have now and things we understand better now, but that doesn't mean at the time they knew they were doing something that was just horribly wrong. As we've seen after hurricanes Katrina and Rita everyone wants to blame someone else for everything. But I can tell you this: I would rather know and get the proper insurance than to go through what a lot of people in New Orleans are going through right now.

Currently, commercial developers in Lafayette Parish are required to mitigate flooding before they'll get a permit, but that's not the case for residential developers. Will you push to change that?

I'm hoping some things will happen this year as a result of our concentrating on and really putting Smart Growth on the table. Donna Landry's making that paramount in her platform for the Chamber of Commerce. We have council members who see it. We have the Planning, Zoning and Codes Department I think who are on board with it and a planning commission that's on board with it, but none of that's going to matter if we're not working with the homebuilders. (Durel notes he is unaware residential developers don't have this requirement.) Everybody that plays a role in causing it should play a role in solving it.

You said recently that the north side of Lafayette needs better leadership from people who aren't angry and bitter. Do you think north side residents have a reason to feel bitter?

I think there are some perceptions. I think you have businesspeople over a period of many years that have invested money in places in town, and it happened to be in south Lafayette. Anybody can invest anywhere they want. It takes landowners and business people coming together to develop.

Does local government shoulder any blame for lack of growth on the north side?

Absolutely not. People are going to invest where they get the biggest returns on investments. I think you're about to see ' I have said this for a long time ' that north Lafayette right now represents the greatest economic development opportunity for this parish. It's starting to happen primarily because there is affordable, undeveloped land, and Lafayette is the only major city in the state that [showed] population growth [before the storms], so the parish is doing well. I'm optimistic because of the private dollars I see people wanting to invest in that part of the city, so it has nothing to do with government.

But government could help, in the form of incentives like Tax Incremental Financing, or TIF, districts. Any plans to develop those in north Lafayette?

I had a conversation with [Commissioner of Administration] Jerry Luke LeBlanc a week ago, and you know those are things we're going to continue to look at, and I think they may be getting more difficult to do. The first thing you think of is frontage roads. If it's truly for economic development, if it's truly going to generate business, then let the new taxes that don't exist now pay for those roads [the premise behind TIFs], and let the taxes that we all pay as a community go to alleviating some traffic problems.

We had a store that wanted some special tax benefits for building a big box store next to Target on Ambassador Caffery and my answer was absolutely not.

On the issue of fiber, it seems you've found a way to rewrite the local ordinance to address the appellate court's decision?

We're going to tweak it. We're not going to rewrite the whole thing. We're going to address just the areas that the appellate court addressed.

Does it affect the rate you'll charge customers?

The things that are most likely to change the rates are the constant legal battles we have with BellSouth and the potential of interest rates going up. I think the equipment and stuff like that are going down in price and not going up. The bond ordinance itself is not going to affect that.

At any point in this costly legal battle did you question the wisdom of LCG's legal team, since it had a hand in the very state law the 3rd Circuit court ultimately ruled our ordinance would be violating?

No. We did it for all the right reasons. Hindsight's 20/20. We got [BellSouth] to compromise because there was a law they introduced that completely banned municipalities from doing this. We were probably a little naïve in thinking these people were sincere.

You've mentioned teaming with New Orleans, which installed a wireless network after the storm, to repeal the state law; are you still considering that?

I had breakfast with the legislators last week, and I told them this was one of the things that we need to introduce. Without that state law we'd already be giving people in Lafayette service.

On the issue of recreation, it's pretty clear the parish's ability to offer passive recreational facilities, like community parks, has not kept pace with its growth. Now you're hoping to address that imbalance with a plan for UL's horse farm, which potentially involves exchanging LCG property near the university for the horse farm acreage. What's your vision?

Well-planned cities tend to have a central park. We had a central park at one time ' Girard Park was probably central. The horse farm does represent a tremendous opportunity. I'd like to see it become a park that's primarily made of bike trails and walking trails and ponds, and you know the only structure I'd like to see built other than utilizing existing structures like the barn for police horses, is an amphitheater where you have long benches or something where it's just real natural looking.

What's the latest on negotiations with UL President Ray Authement?

I'm thinking if we gave them Youth Park [on St. Julien Street near Johnston Street] and carved out a piece [of Girard Park] that's most contiguous to [the Alumni Center] and required that when they're ready to develop it they would [add a road separating the parcels.] If the property owners don't fight that, I think we have the potential to give them four to six acres from here and the eight acres we have at Youth Park. The best business deal in the world is when everybody is happy. It's not when one feels like he got the better end of the deal cause that means the other guy feels like he got the raw end.

How has the community responded?

People are desperate. I think they see it as a last opportunity. It's not just a question of whether or not we've always needed it. They see it as if we don't do this, it's a lost opportunity that will never happen again.

How likely is it that a portion of the horse farm will have to be sold to pay for development of a park?

That has been out there as a potential solution. If you go from a 100-acre park to a 40 or 50-acre park, that's great, but it's still not as nice as a 100-acre park, and it's not like if we do it you suddenly have to go out there and develop it. If we don't have the money to develop it, it can stay like it is, and everybody is still happy.

Some of what we discussed are unresolved issues or troubles you inherited from previous administrations. What would you say is among the biggest challenges you inherited?

Lack of money. Traffic, which every administration inherits. Drainage issues, but of course more money would help. Police and fire is a big one. It's one of my big regrets so far. I mean I really hoped we would have had that one taken care of by now.

Meaning you had hoped to settle before it went to a judgment?

Yeah. Which we're still going to have to do. We don't have $15 million.

Say it's the year 2015, and you've been out of office now for either four years or eight years, depending on whether you're a two-termer. What kind of Lafayette do you live in? Will your vision have been realized?

I would hope that first of all we have some pretty nice looking roads, and traffic is moving pretty good. I would hope we've got buildings that represent some nice technology companies, which obviously represent jobs in this community that are new that would not have existed without the fiber optic project. And we have adopted Smart Growth principals as the norm, and conventional developments are the exception to the rule. This is one way that we alleviate having to raise taxes because Smart Growth developments produce more taxes because of the density.