Last-minute lawsuits against LUS, no FEMA contracts for Louisiana businesses, and more.
LUS RECEIVES LAST-MINUTE LAWSUITS

Two 11th-hour lawsuits are once again questioning the merits of Lafayette Utilities System's fiber-to-the-home proposal. The suits contend that LUS plans to illegally subsidize a new telecommunications department through its utilities division.

BellSouth filed suit late Friday on the heels of a Thursday suit by Lafayette residents Elizabeth Naquin and Matthew Eastin. Both suits challenge the ordinance that city-parish government has approved to issue $125 million in bonds for LUS to build out a fiber-to-the-home network. The network would allow LUS to offer phone, cable and Internet service to Lafayette homes and businesses.

BellSouth's suit says that LUS should not be allowed to use any utility department revenue to pay off bonds for the new venture. State law, agreed upon by both BellSouth and LUS last year, states a government entity like LUS is allowed to pledge its utility resources "to obtain the best available interest rates, terms and conditions for the bonds."

LUS plans to use utility department revenue for any bond payments that its telecommunications division can't cover during its beginning years. However, BellSouth argues that creditors should only be allowed to collect money from LUS' utility division after LUS has defaulted on its loan.

Local BellSouth representative John Williams did not return a call for comment by press time, but BellSouth Louisiana President Bill Oliver issued a statement last week. "BellSouth is opposed to government competing with private enterprise and using any form of subsidy to ensure the success of their business plan," said Oliver.

LUS Director Terry Huval says the suits amount to nothing more than a delay tactic to keep incumbent telecommunication providers from having to compete with a new player. He says the bond ordinance now being challenged is the same that the city-parish government approved in January ' before a Bellsouth and Cox Communications lawsuit prompted LUS to first get voter approval before moving forward. Voters approved the $125 million bond ordinance in July. The city-parish council approved the new bond ordinance last month, and last Friday was the last day anyone could legally challenge it.

"They waited until the absolute last day," says Huval, "and it's my understanding, the absolute last minute [to file the lawsuit]. They've had nine months to address these issues. So, the whole purpose of it is a delay tactic." ' NS

LOUISIANA BUSINESSES SHUT OUT OF FEMA CONTRACTS

Louisiana businesses across the state are hoping that recently hired FEMA Director David Paulison will make good on his promise to a Senate committee last week to rebid all the no-bid contracts the agency awarded post-Hurricane Katrina. The Times-Picayune reported on Monday that only two out of 140 contracts FEMA awarded through Oct. 3 have gone to Louisiana companies. Those two contracts amount to less than half of 1 percent of the $1.6 billion total awarded for items and services such as trailer homes and satellite phones. ' SJ

ABDALLA'S CLOSING

Clothing retailer Abdalla's, a Lafayette fixture for more than a century, announced last week that it is closing its doors.

The family-owned business first opened in 1895, and over the years had locations in New Iberia, Opelousas and Abbeville. The company eventually shuttered those stores and devoted its resources to the Oil Center location, which opened in 1999. With its signature blue sign in cursive script, the red brick building in the Oil Center remained a favorite spot for generations of Lafayette shoppers.

But the changing retail landscape and increasing presence of chain retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Target appears to have proved too much for Abdalla's. In a letter to their customers, co-owners Barbara Abdalla Black and Tom Black cite increased competition and dwindling revenue and write that it is "almost impossible for a single unit, family-owned department store to be profitable."

No official closing date for the store has been announced, and co-owner Barbara Abdalla Black did not return a call for comment by presstime. ' SJ

SAINTS' CHALLENGES DEEPEN ON AND OFF THE FIELD

After an inspirational victory over the Carolina Panthers in their season-opening victory the week after Hurricane Katrina, the Saints outlook has never been gloomier.

The team experienced one of its worst defeats in franchise history last Sunday, getting routed 52-3 by the Green Bay Packers thanks to a listless performance that prompted Sports Illustrated's Peter King to write, "No team, and I mean no team, should have put on a horsecrap performance like the Saints put on."

But things went from bad to worse on Monday, when X-rays showed that running back Deuce McAllister had a torn ACL and would miss the rest of the 2005 season. Without McAllister, their best player, the Saints face an uphill battle, and their chances of making the playoffs this year appear slim at best.

It's the scenario that diehard Saints fans dreaded most. Without a spirited run deep into the playoffs and steady fan support throughout the season, Saints owner Tom Benson might finally make good on his threat to move the team to another city. The Superdome sustained extensive damage during Hurricane Katrina, and chances for the new stadium Benson still covets are almost nil as New Orleans faces more pressing challenges. Coupled with anemic ticket sales for the team's three upcoming Baton Rouge games and the economic base in New Orleans a huge question mark for the foreseeable future, Benson the businessman could now claim that he doesn't have the financial support in Louisiana to keep the team here.

Further complicating matters is the legal term "force majeure" in the team's current contract with Louisiana. The San Antonio Express News reported last week that the clause frees parties from liability when an "act of God" prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their contractual obligation. Katrina certainly appears to qualify as force majeure, meaning Benson has a 90-day window where he could attempt to void all contractual obligations with the state. The 90-day window expires Nov. 28.

' SJ

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