Simone Champagne was a resident of Jeanerette in Iberia Parish and a state legislator for Iberia and Vermilion parishes when hurricanes Rita and Ike flooded parts of those coastal parishes in 2005 and 2008.
In 2014, she resigned from the legislature, moved to Youngsville, and became chief administrative officer of that Lafayette Parish city. Two years later, a nameless storm swamped the area in more than 30 inches of rain, flooding thousands of homes, many in and around Youngsville.
Champagne's experience dealing with the aftermath of flooding and navigating government programs for money to improve drainage and protect the coast after the hurricanes and 2016 floods, she said recently, makes her the best qualified to lead Lafayette Consolidated Government as its next mayor-president.
Today's primaries in the Acadiana area and across Louisiana are chock-full of major issues and races.
Champagne, 64, is one of three Republicans, one Democrat and one no-party candidate on the Oct. 12 ballot for mayor-president, a parish wide-race to replace Joel Robideaux, who announced in April he would not seek a second term.
A native of Jeanerette, Champagne spent 26 years working in the private sector in banking before joining Iberia Parish government in 2002 as chief administrative officer. In 2007, she ran unopposed as a Democrat for the state House of Representatives District 49 seat being vacated by Troy Hebert.
Switching to the Republican party in 2010, Champagne ran for the District 22 state Senate seat, coming in second to Fred Mills. She held off two opponents in 2011 to keep her House seat.
Champagne said she had already decided not to seek a third term when she and her husband made the decision to move to Youngsville, leading her to resign from the legislature in 2014, before her term expired, to accept an offer from Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter to be his chief administrative officer beginning in 2015.
The culture and heritage of Lafayette Parish and the desire to live in a place where neighbors know one another, where you feel safe sitting on your front porch, where children are safe riding their bicycles and where property values aren't decreasing attracted Champagne and her husband to Youngsville, she said.
As CAO of Youngsville, Champagne said she became aware after the 2016 flood that drainage was a big problem that had to be fixed to protect homeowners, businesses and the economy. After Robideaux bowed out, she decided to join the race.
"I felt it was a good opportunity with the experiences I had in government to help and to join others in fixing problems I see as a hindrance to growth in Lafayette Parish," she said.
The parish, Champagne said, didn't have a regular maintenance program for drainage laterals and coulees before the 2016 flood. She wants to work with the state and area municipalities to clean parish roadside ditches. If a coulee goes through several governmental jurisdictions, it's the parish government's responsibility to clean and maintain it, she said, while the Corps of Engineers is responsible for dredging the Vermilion River.
Four of the five candidates for Lafayette mayor-president submitted campaign finance reports as of Thursday in the Oct. 12 election.
"You have to know the process. You have to know the programs that are in place," Champagne said. "We can start off Jan. 1 cleaning roadside ditches, cleaning laterals and coulees."
Digging detention and retention ponds to hold water during heavy rainfalls and release it as the flood risk subsides may be part of a comprehensive plan to address the flooding problems. Youngsville is working on two detention ponds, one of them 20 acres wide, and received federal money, she said.
Champagne said she would work with a regional task force representing parishes in the watershed to address drainage and will fight for funding.
All parish road projects must be prioritized just as drainage projects have been, Champagne said. If, in order to pay for road improvements the parish has to issue bonds, she said projects should be addressed according to priority.
Lafayette police officers need to be paid more, she said. They're leaving the city for other cities in the parish where salaries are better.
Parish fire protection also must be addressed, Champagne said. In 2018, voters in unincorporated parts of the parish defeated a proposed fire protection tax, leaving them to rely on fire protection from volunteer departments and cities, such as Lafayette, whose residents pay taxes specifically for fire protection.
Champagne, who hasn't drilled down into the budget yet, said she doesn't believe people who say the parish has no money.
"I believe there's money," she said. "I think we have to evaluate. We have to set our priorities in government."
Champagne intends to use zero-based budgeting. Government sometimes starts with the prior year's budget and adds to it, she said. She plans to start from zero, pay for mandated costs such as the courthouse, jail and employee salaries, then add money for priorities such as drainage, roads and sewerage improvements. If she finds surpluses, she said she'll ask voters to rededicate the money to priorities.
While the area's culture and heritage are important to the economy by generating sales tax revenue, Champagne said, funding for those things must come after first funding essentials such as drainage, roads and sewerage. She suggested public-private partnerships to help with costs.
There's a $7.6 million line item in the library budget for arts, culture and recreation, Champagne said. That needs to be studied to make sure there's no duplication of services across the city and parish with the recreation department and Acadiana Center for the Arts.
Also on the issue of libraries, Champagne supports a parish-wide referendum on the Oct. 12 ballot that would take $8 in surplus money from libraries to spend on drainage and roads and $2 million for recreation. She also is opposed to building a new public library in northeast Lafayette, saying it's too expensive, and suggested instead bringing libraries to under-served areas via bookmobiles equipped with the latest technology. Most people, she said, have a smart phone to access information, and school libraries are accessible to students five days a week.
"We will still support existing libraries," Champagne said. "I don't think we should continue building brick and mortar facilities."
Businesses won't come to Lafayette Parish if they hear about the drainage problems, bad roads and high crime, Champagne said. LCG, she said, has to take care of those basic needs to make the city and parish attractive to businesses that will bring jobs and generate revenue for local governments.
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Champagne said she'll convene a committee to review the Unified Development Code that governs development in the city of Lafayette and unincorporated parts of the parish. The UDC contains building codes designed to make buildings safe, she said, but the UDC overall is one-size-fits-all. Champagne said a review is needed to make sure the UDC is business friendly. The city of Youngsville doesn't have zoning, she said. It has land use regulations that allow a property owner to do want they want with their land within the confines of the ordinance.
"It is regulatory, but not one-size-fits-all," she said.
Asked if, as mayor-president, she'll favor Youngsville because that's where she lives and works, Champagne said she represented two parishes in the legislature and represented both equally. Lafayette is the hub of the parish, she said, but all the municipalities are intertwined and feed off one another.
Champagne was the second-highest campaign fundraiser as of the Sept. 2 filing deadline. Her campaign reported total receipts of $54,150 from May 30-Sept. 2, including $44,150 in donations and a $10,000 loan from herself to her campaign. She reported spending $44,833 to end up with $9,317 on hand as of Sept. 2.
By comparison, Carlee Alm-LaBar, a no-party candidate, reported $270,480 in donations as of Sept. 2, well ahead of the other four candidates.
- Age: 64
- Family: married to Gary, five children
- Home: Youngsville
- Job: Chief Administrative Officer with the city of Youngsville
- Party: Republican