The Lafayette City-Parish Council appears poised to approve a ballot measure that calls for shifting library reserve funds to road and drainage projects, with a majority saying they support the concept.
But there are differing views on the amount of money that should be moved. And even if most support the concept, multiple council members said in interviews they expect Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s administration to present a plan for spending the money before they vote at Tuesday's council meeting.
“I don’t want to just blindly support this,” Councilwoman Liz Hebert said. “How are you going to use the money? Give me an example. What can we expect from this?”
Robideaux said in an email late Friday afternoon that the public works department had identified 2,900 needed road overlay projects with a combined price tag of $97 million, in addition to ongoing drainage projects the department identified last year.
"The projects lists from Public Works takes the politics out of it and ensures that areas of need are the focus," Robideaux said.
If a resolution to put the proposal before voters on May 4 succeeds, and voters concur, the money will only cover a fraction of the overall need. Council members will likely debate moving something in a range from $10 million to $18 million.
The higher figure is what is currently proposed in resolution authored by Jared Bellard, William Theriot and Kevin Naquin. The lower figure is expected to come in an amendment that Bruce Conque announced Friday he plans to introduce.
The proposal comes as the Lafayette Public Library wraps up a nearly two-decade-long reinvention of itself. The library has transformed from a single main branch with small satellites into a regional system with five libraries throughout the parish, with the Scott branch nearly complete.
The capital program, which included a renovation of the downtown main branch and technology upgrades, was courtesy of a $40 million bond issue in 2002, as well as a 2-mill property tax.
That property tax and two others for the library have helped it accrue a $26 million unassigned fund balance, which library director Teresa Elberson said is key to planning for another 20-year capital program. Long-term planning for libraries — like schools — must account for unknown variables that affect how the parish grows, Elberson said.
“Katrina and Rita hadn’t even happened yet,” Elberson said, referring to the planning that occurred in the early 2000s. “River Ranch didn’t exist. Sugar Mill Pond wasn’t even on the drawing board yet. Now it’s time to take a look at what we need or don’t need.”
Expansions to the Carencro branch and the one inside the Clifton Chenier Center are the next projects on the library’s to-do list, Elberson said, but all future expansions have been tabled until the library knows what its funding level will be. The uncertainty began with the failure of one of the library taxes in April, with opponents emphasizing the library’s flush reserves.
The failed tax annually generated about $3.8 million, which the library will collect this year for the last time.
Library officials say they need a fund balance sufficient to pay for needed expansions that they might not have initially foreseen.
Demand for space at the South Regional branch, for example, quickly overwhelmed the building, and the fund balance enabled the library to initiate an 8,000-square-foot expansion with new meeting rooms, study rooms and bathrooms.
But those eyeing library reserves say the parish’s roads and drainage needs are in critical need and the parish general fund — unlike the library’s — is essentially stripped of any fund balance.
“If you can’t drive to get to the library when you have drainage and road issues, it doesn’t matter how great your library is,” Bellard said.
Bellard said he had only seen Conque’s proposal when it became public Friday, and hadn’t had time to think about it. He said he’s open to discussion, but that he thinks it goes too far.
“He’s basically cutting it in half,” Bellard said, referring to the difference between the $18 million he favors versus the $10 million Conque is proposing. “I would probably disagree with half.”
Conque’s co-author, Naquin, said he’s not set on any dollar amount, though he is fully behind the idea.
Naquin, like Hebert, said he wants the administration to compose a priority list of projects based on a scoring system, as it did after voters in 2017 approved rededicating property taxes to drainage projects.
Naquin said he wants to be careful not to shortchange the library, which could force it to seek more property taxes – especially with another library tax renewal coming up in 2022.
“You can’t say, oh, it’s a reelection year, let me go fix as many roads as I can and then five years from now the library is falling apart,” Naquin said. “I’m on board with rededicating, but to tell you the exact dollar amount without understanding the complications, I’m not there yet.”