LAFAYETTE — Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel said Wednesday that he wants to form a “blue ribbon” committee to tackle financial problems that have left city-parish government with fewer employees and fewer resources in recent years.
The committee was among several priorities that Durel outlined in his annual State of the Parish speech at the Cajundome Convention Center, which also touched on a proposed annexation plan, his desire to revisit the structure of consolidated government and a planned reorganization of city-parish departments.
Durel, who is serving his third and final term, offered some blunt comments to the crowd of business and community leaders that gathered to hear him, telling the group that most residents don’t understand the financial issues facing city-parish government.
“You see, to have an understanding of something, you have to first have a clue, and I can assure you that most everyone in this room has no clue about the realities of our finances, our revenues or our spending any more than I did nine years ago,” Durel said. “It is not a knock on anyone. It is just a reality of the complexity of government coupled with our own busy lives.”
Durel said that expenses for local government in general have been steadily rising with some of the biggest increases in costs for employee retirement and health care.
The financial woes have led to some hard decisions, he said, pointing to the lack of raises for city-parish employees for two years in a row and a decision to strip 78 vacant jobs from this year’s budget rather than filling the positions.
“It takes longer for our public works department to respond and to cut grass and patch potholes,” Durel said. “Our police and fire department resources are pushed to their very limits.”
City-parish government has considered two tax proposals over the past year to help fill budget gaps — a half-cent public safety sales tax measure that was ultimately dropped and an increase in the parks and recreation property tax that was placed on the April ballot but then pulled by the council.
Durel characterized both tax proposals as well meaning but said a more comprehensive financial plan should emerge from the “blue ribbon” committee that explores all funding issues rather than addressing the problem piecemeal.
There is no firm time line for the creation of the new committee, but Durel said he wants to do it “as soon as possible.”
The city-parish president also talked Wednesday of the need for a parishwide annexation plan and a desire to revisit the structure of consolidated government.
Durel said annexation has been an ongoing source of tension between Lafayette and the smaller municipalities in the parish.
One possible solution is for all municipalities to agree on a broad annexation plan that lays out what area of unincorporated Lafayette Parish will be annexed by each municipality, he said.
Durel said an agreed-upon annexation plan could ease some of the tensions and relieve the financial strain on city-parish government, because taxes in the unincorporated areas of the parish do not generate enough revenue to cover services needed there. He proposed a similar annexation plan during his 2009 State of the Parish speech, but the idea never got traction.
On the issue of consolidation, Durel said the community needs to renew talk of whether to tweak or undo the 1996 merger of Lafayette’s once-separate city and parish governments.
Lafayette voters in 2011 rejected a proposal to undo the merger.
Durel and some members of the City-Parish Council have argued that changes are still needed to limit the control that council members representing areas outside the city limits have over city issues such as the budgets and oversight of the Fire Department, the Police Department and the city-owned utility system.
Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux proposed in February 2012 that a committee be formed to look at what could be done short of dissolving the consolidated government to address city autonomy, but the committee never took shape.
Durel also unveiled a plan Wednesday to reorganize some city-parish departments after the expected retirement of City-Parish Traffic and Transportation Director Tony Tramel later this year.
Pending council approval, the Traffic and Transportation Department will become a division of the Public Works Department, and a new department will be formed devoted exclusively to planning for growth and development, Durel said.
City-parish government now has some planners working in the Traffic and Transportation Department and some in the Planning, Zoning and Codes Department.
All those planners would be brought together in the new department, Durel said, and the current Planning, Zoning and Codes Department would be renamed.
“I believe that if we are going to be serious about planning, we should have a true, stand-alone planning department,” he said.