LAFAYETTE — Voters on Oct. 22 will decide if the consolidation of the once-separate governments for the city of Lafayette and Lafayette Parish has been a failed experiment in unity or a sustainable model for the future.
The prospect of undoing the 1996 merger became a concrete possibility last year after the City-Parish Council formed a special commission to explore changes to local government.
Casting aside options to make only minor tweaks, the commission voted 6-3 in April to put deconsolidation before voters — an option pushed by community leaders who argue that the city of Lafayette would be better off on its own.
Opponents of deconsolidation say reverting to separate governments would be costly and a step backward at a time when local government should be tackling regional, big-picture issues.
The focus of the deconsolidation debate has been the nine-member City-Parish Council that was created in 1996, merging the former Lafayette City Council and former Lafayette Parish Council.
Consolidation also melded the jobs of Lafayette Parish president and Lafayette mayor into one city-parish president.
Despite the merger of the two governing bodies, the city remained a separate entity with its own taxes and distinct services, including the city-owned utility company, the Police Department and the Fire Department.
Supporters of deconsolidation say the critical problem is that City-Parish Council members who represent mostly rural constituencies have a vote on issues specific to the city, such as utility rates, the oversight of the Police and Fire departments, and what special projects the city will pursue with city tax dollars.
Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel likened the situation to allowing neighboring parishes to have a vote on what goes on in Lafayette Parish.
“I do think that a fundamental principle that this country was founded on is taxation and representation,” he said.
On the current council, five of the nine members represent districts with mostly city residents, meaning the city still has a voting majority, but there is a concern the balance could shift, City-Parish Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux said.
The city of Lafayette’s population in relation to the total parish population has dipped in recent decades, with the city dropping from 58 percent of the total parish in 2000 to 54 percent in 2010, according to census figures.
“That controlling element is going to really raise its head, and the problems are going to start,” Boudreaux said of the influence that residents living outside the city might gain over city affairs.
Opponents of deconsolidation acknowledge that autonomy for the city of Lafayette needs to be addressed, but they argue there are options beyond returning to separate governments.
“I understand what the city residents are asking for, and they can get that,” said City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille, who represents a north Lafayette district that takes in parts of the city and unincorporated areas of the parish.
Councilman Sam Dore, whose district is almost entirely city residents, agrees.
“There are some issues, but all of them can be fixed easily. Well, maybe not easily, but they can be fixed,” Dore said.
Castille, Dore and other deconsolidation opponents support a hybrid plan that would essentially create a city council within the City-Parish Council, retaining consolidated government but allowing only council members representing city districts to vote on city-specific issues.
That stance has been officially adopted by the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, which opposes deconsolidation and pushes for a new commission that would repair rather than scrap consolidated government.
Formal opposition has also come from the Tea Party of Lafayette and True PAC, a political action committee that has been campaigning against the deconsolidation proposal.
True PAC was formed by Don Bacque, who was a member of the commission that put deconsolidation on the ballot but who voted in the minority against it.
One of Bacque’s main talking points has been the increased expense of returning to separate governments.
The deconsolidation proposal calls for the replacement of the nine-member City-Parish Council with two seven-member councils, one each for the city and parish.
The city-parish president’s jobs would be replaced with a mayor for Lafayette and a parish president for Lafayette Parish.
Estimates for the increased annual cost of government vary from $250,000 up to $2 million a year, with deconsolidation supporters giving the low figure and opponents citing the higher.
The increased cost is a small price to pay for a return to self-government for the city, said Bruce Conque, who served on the commission that recommended deconsolidation and who has been campaigning in support of the proposal.
Conque said the hybrid plan pushed by deconsolidation opponents was discussed in detail by the commission but ultimately cast aside in favor of a complete split.
If voters approve deconsolidation, the plan would not go into effect until 2016.