Cover Story

Presidential Aspirations

City-Parish President Joey Durel outlines his vision for Lafayette in 2007.

If you had three goals you want your administration to accomplish before the end of 2007, what would those be?

There's no doubt, and it's kind of out of our control, because it's occupied so much of our time, energy and vision of our future, is that we'd be in the process of getting fiber-to-the-home. It's a big, big deal for Lafayette. Michael Dell [founder and CEO of Dell Inc.] was recently quoted as saying we've got to quit talking about one and a half and 10 megabits per second, and we've got to start talking in terms of 100 megabits per second, and the only way to do that is with fiber. He was challenging and saying that every telecommunications company in America needs to be putting fiber to the home. So here's somebody that has credibility and no ties to Lafayette at all.

From a priority standpoint, we've got to continue to do some things to build infrastructure. It's not going to get built by itself. So hopefully by the end of 2007, we will have gotten our legislation passed that our legislative delegation is proposing in Baton Rouge to dedicate sales taxes from automobiles to go to communities around the state based on population. That would be the first time that had happened; right now it's an inverted formula. One of the things that we've talked about this week that I'm disappointed we haven't done a better job of, is we've got to find more things that we can do online, to get people out of lines. Like paying parking tickets online, we've finally gotten where they can pay utility bills online, but there's probably other tickets and permitting that can be done online. We are working on getting it to where people can register for golf courses online. That makes government available to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week, instead of just when we come to work.

Something I have talked about for a little while, and I've said more about publicly in the last year or so, is that we can have all the infrastructure and we can have all the museums, but if people don't feel safe going to their mailbox and going shopping, then our quality of life is shot. I think Lafayette is very safe, and you will see a press release that shows the mistakes that were made in our crime statistics that will show that much of our crime is flat or has come down, contrary to the reports ... Two or three years ago we had the same problem with this software, reporting that 300-something rapes in Lafayette, and that made national news. That was obviously wrong.

Regarding crime, the perception may be that crime is on the rise, but to me the problem is that we can't get accurate statistics, or people who can read the statistics accurately. Especially since this has happened in the past, if you're going to look at it strictly from a factual numbers standpoint, why can't we get accurate crime numbers?

I think what was happening is a lot of businesses do things on spread sheets, and evidently the software that they've been using in recent years had a flaw in it. In January, we said, sit down and take it page by page and do it by hand. And what was happening, for example, there was an armed auto theft in a carjacking, but when they coded it in, it went down as just an auto theft. But the difference is a gun was involved. When they found the owner's car, they said, "You can come pick it up." He said, "OK, but don't you want to fingerprint it and do other things?" They said, "We don't usually do that for just a simple auto theft." He said, "You realize it was a holdup and a carjacking." They did some research and called him up and said, "We're so sorry; you're right." That's the kind of thing where the flaws were. I promise you we're going be paying a lot more attention to that detail than we have been for the last couple of years.

Lafayette ranks poorly against cities of similar sizes as far as the amount of police it has for the population, and the amount budgeted for police, which is only 10 percent. We're supposedly experiencing all this growth; at some point don't you have to beef up the police force, and how are you going to pay for that?

The truth is that much of the beefing up of the police force is already paid for. Let's say that there are 30 positions; those positions are funded every year. But this year, for the first time, we have a very aggressive recruiting program. And I heard Jim [Craft] say recently that we may have only five or six positions open as early as this summer. We have a good recruiting class. It's not unusual to have 14 in a class and have only eight or 10 of them make it all the way through to where they're actually on the street. Couple that with having three to four officers retire, and your net gain is only two or three officers. Well, for the first time in a long time, with the people that are planning and retiring and the number of the class, they've got only a few positions open.

It's a great example in the police department of the general public's attitude about running government efficiently, and growing government. People love to beat up on growing government. If you come in as city-parish president and you've got 2,200 employees and four years later you've got 2,240 employees because you've added 40 policemen, there will be those who will go out there and say, "Look at this. Since he's been in office, they've grown government." Another department I use as an example of that is Planning, Zoning and Codes. There's a demand on that department unlike we've ever had in the history of Lafayette. And who suffers when government doesn't grow properly? The community. People who are trying to develop subdivisions, build shopping centers or build homes and have to have their plans looked over to make sure they meet codes, they have to wait. That's the balance as a politician, is trying to run government efficiently with the money you have to operate with, and knowing that there are those out there that will accuse you of growing government. I say it all the time ' and I've learned it more than I've ever believed it in my life ' that it's of the people, by the people, for the people. So you're here to serve the public. Like anything else in life, you've got to find that balance where you have the right number of employees just like you do in any other business, to properly serve your customers, which is everybody.

Jim Craft was passed over twice for police chief, and he's been credited of late with boosting morale in the department. What was it this time around that made you think he was the right man for the job?

Interestingly, I had one of the other potential candidates for chief in my office earlier today. I'd invited him to come in anytime and have coffee. He asked me almost the same question, but more like, "Why not me? What could I have done differently?"

I said, "Nothing." I had a very similar conversation with Jim Craft a couple years ago, when I told Jim, "It's nothing negative toward you. I just don't know you." And now over the last two or three years I've gotten to know Jim not only as a policeman, but over the last nine or 10 months as being the [interim] chief. He's done a good job, I hear good things coming out of the police department, and I see his professionalism. He's got good ideas. This time around, I knew Jim and felt good about it. I felt like he and I had a good working relationship, and he certainly has earned the opportunity after 30 years of loyalty to that department.

Have you two talked about any specific changes within the department?

Yes, but I'm going to wait to talk about those.

You mentioned Planning, Zoning and Codes. Smart code is something that's been talked about now for more than a year -

Well, we've sat down with the council and gotten approval to fund a consultant to the tune of $100,000 to get that done. I met with our Planning, Zoning and Codes people last week about how bad I want to get that thing done. It's probably a two to three year deal.

Because you can't just take those codes and just do a cookie-cutter approach. That's what the consultant's going to do, is take a starting point and make it fit for this part of the country and this part of Louisiana. The codes here might be a little different than in Shreveport.

Regarding smart growth, we've seen just in the last three-four months where developers have tried to do denser development, and the neighbors have fought the plans. How do you balance those two factions?

That's the key word: balance. I find it really interesting. Somebody said to me recently, "I'm all for development, but not right here, and not like this." And so I think we have to do a better job of communicating with the surrounding areas. But smart growth is building ' we've got to find ways to encourage developers and people to buy homes and build developments inside where the infrastructure exists already. Whether it's in one of the surrounding towns or in the city of Lafayette, every time somebody develops outside of one of the communities ... I'll give you an example. I've had mayors call me from one of the small towns saying, "One of us needs to annex this subdivision; the water is horrible." That's the problem we have.

You can build somewhere cheaper and with less standards outside of those city limits. People often move outside city limits because they don't want government intervention, until something happens next door to 'em, then they want government intervention. And cities are on the verge of bankruptcy all over America because they keep annexing more than they can service. People think you annex a little bit of property and you get some property taxes, but the property taxes are minimal and don't come anywhere close to paying for the additional services. I think I can tell you pretty safely that there's not a department in this government that doesn't have much greater demand on it today than it had three years ago.

It still comes down to, we have to live within our means, we understand that, but we have to service people. Like in public works, a department that 20 percent of the positions in that department are unfilled right now. And public works is one of those departments that really does the day-to-day work of the people. They're the ones who change the light bulbs, cut the grass, dig the ditches and fix the roads, all the things that we want to see government doing, but when you have 20 percent fewer people than what you're supposed to have, that's difficult. And that's not unique to government; you can drive up and down the streets of Lafayette and see help-wanted signs.

The plan for funding infrastructure from automobile sales taxes and the proposed Baton Rouge legislation ' even if it works, does that mean that roads are currently under state jurisdiction for upkeep and maintenance, would they then become our responsibility?

No. It would not surprise me ... I would almost expect and surely hope that if we can get that money back into our parishes, that we can pick and choose and decide where the money goes. But one of the indications we've already gotten out of Baton Rouge is that if it has a chance of passing, they may require that it's put on state roads. Our tax election in November was going to pay for probably $600 million worth of capital improvements over the next 10 years in Lafayette. If we get this [Baton Rouge legislation] passed, it'll produce probably in the neighborhood of $100 million. But for us to think that the state is going to pay for our parish ditches and coulees and other local roads, is kind of a stretch. But the first thing we'll ask is if we can use the money where we think it needs to go. Even it has to go on roads, we're OK with that. That's some of the language that's going to have to really be tightened up, because of the fear that a lot of legislators have that the money will go to some parishes and not go into roads.

In a best-case scenario, if it passes and you get the revenue you were hoping for, it's still not enough to meet our needs, is it?

If we bond out that money, we can do about $100 million worth of projects over the next 20 years. Right now it's around $10 or $11 million a year that we'd get. As I understand it, you can go about 10 times that is what you can bond right now. So you can borrow $100 million, which would take 20 years to pay back that $100 million.

We feel pretty good about it. As that special session was about to happen, you saw people in news saying, "We need to give raises to this, we need to put money into this, we need to do this ..." I remember sending a few friends copies of articles. I said, notice how nobody in this article said Lafayette was their priority. If you watched all the news and all the rhetoric about the money that was going to be available, that $800 million, only one guy said that $300 million should go to roads throughout Louisiana. Louisiana's backlog of infrastructure needs and roads and bridges is $12 billion. Three hundred million dollars is an embarrassment.

I'm sure you saw the study that just came out ranking our roads as some of the worst in the country.

Yeah. It's an embarrassment. And I guess my frustration comes from the fact that I know Lafayette deserves so much. Sometimes I say things out of frustration, but it's only because I want so much for Lafayette and I think the people of Lafayette deserve more. So we'll keep fighting and go to Baton Rouge and Washington and I'll humiliate myself if I have to or do whatever I have to do to try and get money for Lafayette.

We got the message loud and clear in November, and that is that we have to do more. Lafayette was the only major city in the state of Louisiana pre-Katrina that was showing growth. Everybody else was losing population. So we have to do, in my opinion, because of our growth, and I think we're going to see more and more growth, we have to do more than anybody else in the state with less. Because our sales taxes are as much as 50 percent less of what other communities are, and 67 percent at best of any other major city in the state. So we're going to build it as we can, live within our means, continue to eliminate jobs that aren't necessary, and do what we can. It's all we can do.

What do you think the message voters sent in November when the sales tax failed? And is there anything you would have done differently?

Yeah. Hindsight is 20/20. I think I worked very, very hard to get the message out and explain to people; maybe I didn't work very smartly. Physically and time-wise I put everything into it I could have; I went everywhere I could go and created meetings when I could. But maybe we could have raised money from the private sector and done some advertising.

Every opinion that you've heard as to why it failed, and every opinion that's out there as to why it failed, contributed to why it failed. It's a part of what I'm going to talk about at the State of the City-Parish Address. It was the perfect storm ' an awful lot of things that came together, many out of our control. Some perception, some reality.

If the Supreme Court rules in your favor regarding the fiber-to-the-home project, do you think that will be the last legal challenge?

What I have been told is that if the Supreme Court rules in our favor, there are no more legal challenges available to stop the project. We expect, after a year or so of doing fiber, that there will be those that will still try to give us headaches and challenge things. But there should be nothing else that can stop the project from moving forward.

If the Supreme Court rules against you, what next?

We've already had discussions about that. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

You just put out RFPs for a wireless network. Is this the first step toward building a wireless network in Lafayette that the public could tap into?

The RFPs that went out are to ramp up communications for LUS. I think that the very next step for us is get that up and running for LUS and make sure it's working properly and get the bugs out of it. Then the next step will be to make that available to our emergency services personnel ' policemen, firemen. We'll see from there. The good news is that the infrastructure is going to start getting into place.

Budget-wise, you're still facing the back-pay lawsuit from firefighters '

We've been working on that since I've been in office, unfortunately. I can't control the legal process. The wheels of justice turn exceedingly slow sometimes. It's frustrating to me, because chances are we could have done this two or three years ago, but once their lawyer pushed it to a different level, you have to go through all the processes and all the motions. We're hopefully not too far away.

Any recent conversations with Dr. Ray Authement related to the horse farm property?


Colts or Bears?

Colts, 24-14.

The Independent Weekly Lecture Series: State of the City-Parish Address

11:45 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, Lafayette Convention Center. Admission free without lunch; luncheon tickets $25 per person or $215 for table of eight. Call 988-4607, ext. 118 or e-mail [email protected] for tickets or more info.