Lafayette Council approves public health tax for ballot _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- The old Federal Couthouse, right, is located on Jefferson Street in downtown Lafayette Tuesday.

The Lafayette City-Parish Council voted Tuesday to let voters decide in a special election March 28 whether to consolidate two existing property taxes into a single public health millage that would pay for animal control.

But the council refused to give its blessing to an administration plan to advance with negotiations to develop the old federal courthouse downtown and two city-owned adjacent buildings — the old Acadiana Open Channel building and the former police station — into a mixed-use, residential center.

The two issues were brought up as resolutions during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Although the courthouse issue was debated for more than an hour, there was no discussion about calling the public health tax election, which barely passed with a 5-4 vote.

Voting against the tax resolution were councilmen Kenneth Boudreaux, District 4; Jared Bellard, District 5; Andy Naquin, District 6; and William Theriot, District 9.

The proposal is to consolidate an existing 2.06-mill tax that funds the public health unit, which provides health services for low-income residents in Lafayette Parish, with a 1.50-mill tax that pays for mosquito control.

The two existing taxes bring in about $6.7 million each year, but only about $2.9 million is spent. Officials want to include animal control in the services covered by the millage. Animal control, which has no dedicated funding, costs the general fund about $1.3 million annually.

If the rededication passes, about $300,000 of the funds once used to fund animal control would go into the parish fund, almost doubling the $320,000 budgeted this fiscal year for road projects in unincorporated areas of the parish. The other $1 million would be available for capital projects within the city limits.

“I’m excited that they chose to let the people decide if they want to rededicate this tax,” said Nancy Marcantel, president and founder of Animal Rescue Foundation of Louisiana. “They voted the millage in, and they should be allowed to vote on where the money is spent.”

Marcantel and representatives with Lafayette Animal Control, Friends of Lafayette Animal Shelter (FLASh) and Lafayette Animal Aid, along with a handful of local veterinarians, showed up to support the resolution.

Voters also will decide in the March election whether to continue a 4.17-mill property tax that funds roads and bridges for another 10 years starting in 2017. The tax brings in an estimated $7.8 million each year.

An earlier resolution to put both proposals before voters on the Dec. 6 ballot died in September when a motion by Councilman Jay Castille to discuss the issue was not backed by any other council members.

As for the courthouse issue, the council voted 5-3 against the resolution, citing a lack of information about the properties’ values, with some also bringing up the need for solutions for the aging parish courthouse before the old federal courthouse site should be considered for development.

Only Councilmen Brandon Shelvin, District 3, Don Bertrand, District 7, and Keith Patin, District 8, voted in support of the resolution. Boudreaux abstained.

Theriot said he opposed the resolution on the basis that no appraisal has been made on the properties, and District 2 Councilman Jay Castille agreed.

“Without having this in place, I think it’s a bad move on our government,” Castille said. He voted against the resolution, also citing the parish courthouse issue as his reason for dissent.

“That they care about the parish courthouse is great, but I wish they would separate the two issues,” Downtown Development Authority CEO Nathan Norris said.

Voters in 2006 rejected a tax proposal that would have funded a new parish courthouse. The DDA since then has proposed building courthouse annexes in various locations in downtown Lafayette.

City-Parish President Joey Durel said he will continue to work on developing the properties.

“My goal is going to work toward bringing the council some options and hope they like one of them,” Durel said.

The council rejected an earlier proposal from Durel to give the courthouse building to the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, which purchased the structure in the city’s name in 2001 for $800,000.

In return, Durel would have begun negotiations with the LPTFA to demolish the Lesspay Motel at Four Corners to build a police substation there, and the private entity could advance with developing the courthouse property on its own.

Council members said then that they supported the federal courthouse redevelopment idea, but wanted the two issues separated.

In other council business, District 4 Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux brought up an issue about increased crime in the areas near West Alexander Street and Doc Duhon Road.

Police Chief Jim Craft said there’s been an increase in reported incidents, including street-level drug sales and gunfire.

“We don’t know if it’s just the amount of people reporting, but we’ve definitely seen an increase,” Craft said.

The Armadillo, an armored surveillance vehicle, will be stationed in the area starting this week, and officers will be going door-to-door to notify neighborhood residents of the ongoing operation that will cover days and nights, Craft said.

“We don’t wanna call it an occupation, but the Armadillo will be out there, and it’s going to be heavily scrutinizing,” Craft said. “Any violations we can detect, we’re going to take action.”

Craft also said Tuesday a few off-duty officers will start working overtime as soon as Friday on Simcoe Street, where Boudreaux said the nightclub scene is causing issues.

The police presence there will not compare to the weekend police detail on Jefferson Street, where more than 10 officers are stationed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Craft said.

“We have much fewer problems on Simcoe than we do downtown,” Craft said. “It’s a different crowd. It’s a more mature crowd. They’re very behaved. But you still have a problem with traffic, loud music, loitering.”

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook.