Walter Pierce

RE: The Shape of Things to Come

by Walter Pierce

The 2010 census could finally settle it: Consolidation was a bad idea for Lafayette

Questions about the questionnaire for the 2010 census are settled; the Senate last week blocked Sen. David Vitter’s bid to include a citizenship question. It could mean the loss of a U.S. House seat for Louisiana and a bizarre redrawing of the remaining six districts in the state. Much closer to home, next year’s census poses some serious questions about how Lafayette Parish will be reflected in the composition of the City-Parish Council, and it could have a profound effect on the balance of power in our parish.

The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce has begun studying the distribution of souls in the parish and how that might affect the redrawing of district lines. Bruce Conque, now a vice president at the chamber and a former city-parish councilman, has been assigned the task of crunching these numbers. Bruce and I have met for coffee a couple of times recently, and while he and the chamber haven’t taken a position on what the parish numbers may mean for our consolidated government, I’ve been drawing some unsettling conclusions. Chief among them: The city of Lafayette, which comprises a majority of the parish population, could have minority representation on the council within a few years.

Based on a 2008 estimate by LCG’s Planning Department, which used information from utility providers, Lafayette will have a population of approximately 215,000 when the U.S. Census Bureau hits the streets next year for its decennial head count — 56 percent in the city, 28 percent in unincorporated areas and 16 percent in the smaller municipalities like Broussard, Carencro and Youngsville. But since the 2000 census, as anyone who drives around Lafayette knows, growth in the parish has overwhelmingly been toward the south and the southeast — in the areas of Broussard, Youngsville and Milton.

The city-parish charter requires that all nine districts, which are the same for the parish council and the school board, have roughly equal numbers. Consequently, working with a total parish population of 215,000, each district should contain about 24,000 people. Right now districts 7,8 and 9 — the southern “growth” districts — have more than 24,000. District 7’s population is 3,000+ higher, District 8 is 1,500+ and District 9 is a whopping 7,000+. At the same time, the inner city Districts 3, 4 and 6 are a combined 14,000+ below what they will need to be when districts are reapportioned following the census.

The trend is clear: People are moving out of the heart of the city and into the suburbs and smaller towns. The conclusion is virtually inescapable, too: The number of districts in south Lafayette Parish outside the city limits will have to increase — at the same time they’ll shrink geographically to account for population density — while the inner city districts will expand geographically to pull in more people to get to that magic number of 24,000. How we maintain two majority black districts at the same time will no doubt impress the most limber contortionist.

Ultimately, the possibility that the current council make-up of five city districts and four rural districts becoming four city districts and five rural districts takes on the shape of certainty. And if you subscribe to the view that council members outside the city tend to be less favorable if not downright hostile to the idea of government funding for the arts, and generally anything that benefits the city of Lafayette, what becomes of Festival International de Louisiane or Festivals Acadiens et Creoles or a comprehensive master plan?