Wednesday, March 03, 2010

LUS and Deconsolidation...

The Advertiser runs an article this morning focusing on the City-Parish councilmen's attitudes toward LUS governance. What makes their positions on so technical an issue a story on this fine Wednesday morning is the burgeoning question of deconsolidation.

It's good to get this issue on the table early. As far as I can tell the issue of who controls LUS is the nub of the practical (as opposed to more theoretical) fears driving the proposal to take apart the current city-parish government by reconstituting a city of Lafayette. The pretty clear intent of the current charter is that LUS should be solely controlled by the LPUA (Lafayette Public Utility Authority)—a subset of the council made up of those members who have represent areas with 60 percent or more city of Lafayette residents. But that has never been the case in practice as other parts of the charter also require that full council approve matters relating to rates, taxes, and fees with no exception clearly made for those matters covered in the LPUA portion. The thing is poorly drafted and the consequence has been dual LPUA/Council votes on every LUS issue. Traditionally the LPUA votes first and the full council votes with the majority, deferring to their judgment about city matters.

That system came to within a hairs-breadth of breaking down recently.

The current situation is that the 5 members of the current LPUA, who represent city citizens in percentages ranging from 72 to just a hair this side of 100, can be overridden by "rural" members who represent from 48 percent to just shy of no city residents. This became painfully visible recently when LUS' electrical arm applied for its first rate increase in more than a decade. After patching up poor relations with some members the LPUA passed the increase. But there was real doubt that some of the rural members—who pride themselves on a reflexively anti-government stance and insist on viewing rate increases as "tax" increases—would go along. The final count, in fact, came down to a 5-4 squeaker of a vote with the two most anti-government rural representatives (with the smallest number of LUS customers in their district) voted against it. They joined the two most liberal members of the board who represent poorer, mostly black districts, and had voted no to avoid the cost increase in a bad economy. It's not a natural lineup and not one that you'll see often. Had one more rural representative decided to not honor the LPUA majority they could have overturned the vote.

Much of the current feeling that there is a "crisis" is directly attributable to this vote in my judgment. It was apparent that Theriot and Bellard would pursue their anti-government stand even in if it meant overriding the vote of the LPUA. They had made it clear that the old deferral to those on the LPUA was dead as far as they were concerned. As a consequence a lot of folks started to realize just how much the traditional workable solution depended upon "good behavior" by the non-LPUA portion of the council. With Theriot and Bellard making it clear that they could not be counted upon to cooperate other solutions were sought. And so deconsolidation became a hot issue. Theriot has certainly not been happy about that outcome—he's made his position that now is not the moment for deconsolidation in several venues. That's most likely because, by most accounts, it is the rural districts like his, and especially those constituents that are not in any municipal area, that will lose the most by the creation of the newly impoverished parish government that will be left when Lafayette becomes a full-fledged city again. The irony, of course is that he and Bellard did more than anyone else to make this an active issue. (Maybe a strong parish government is not such a bad idea after all? Hmmm..)

LUS stands at the center of this gathering storm. Fixing LUS' governance issue would take much of the immediate, practical, wind out of the sails of deconsolidation. (Though the issue is quickly becoming a question of the city of Lafayette's sovereignty—a beast that will be much harder to put down once it is awakened.) LUS is, as it stands now, the symbol of Lafayette's sovereignty. It is both a point of pride and an enormous practical and financial asset. We decided to build our own fiber optic network on the basis it provided. We can use it to carry out policy and attract new business. The ILOT money that it provides substitutes fees for service for taxes—without LUS the city's property taxes would have to rise. The rest of the parish doesn't have that asset. But, in my judgment at least, it should—and I've always suspected that the endgame in Lafayette parish was to extend LUS Fiber out into the parish. Deconsolidation done poorly or rancorously could make that impossible. And that would be a lasting tragedy for our community.

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