Lafayette Utilities System reached another milestone last week in its quest to make Lafayette the largest U.S. city to solely own and operate its own fiber-to-the-home network. The state Public Service Commission voted unanimously in approval of financing rules that LUS had previously endorsed for the project, which will allow LUS to compete with private telecom providers and offer Internet, phone and cable service to all city residents.
The PSC's approval appears to be the last green light needed for LUS to proceed, though city officials now fear that BellSouth is preparing a legal challenge to the PSC ruling. LUS Director Terry Huval says one of the city's representatives overheard a BellSouth attorney say they would soon be seeing the city in court, regardless of the PSC ruling.
"I think the PSC rules are consistent with the [state law]," Huval says. "But BellSouth could file a suit just to delay it. Even if it's unfounded rationale, it could delay the start of our project, and we feel that's been their agenda all along."
Since LUS first announced its fiber project nearly 16 months ago, it has met regular objections from incumbent telecom providers BellSouth and Cox Communications ' objections that have already led to new state legislation on the project's financing, a lawsuit and subsequent public referendum over its bond issue.
If no new legal challenges surface, Huval estimates LUS could issue bonds by the beginning of next year and begin serving its first customers by summer 2007.
Huval also responded to comments that BellSouth Representative John Williams made in The Daily Advertiser, where he cautioned that in light of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, residents might want to reconsider whether they want to entrust telecommunications services to local government.
"His comments are something that a public relations person came up with, in my opinion," Huval says. (Williams could not be reached for comment.) "I think we just need to look at the history of what's happened when hurricanes have hit Lafayette." Huval notes that when Hurricane Lili hit in 2002, LUS was the first utility to have services back on line and also provided feed power to other utilities to help them get back up and running.
"We're going to provide the appropriate resources to be able to respond to whatever happens," says Huval. ' Nathan Stubbs
LAFAYETTE SCHOOLS ADD MORE THAN 4,000 EVACUEES
At the end of last week, 4,200 students who were displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina had registered with the Lafayette Parish School System, up nearly 1,000 from the previous week. LPSS Supervisor of Homeless Education Patsy Williams says 4,000 of those students have been regularly attending classes. According to school officials, the system has coped surprisingly well with the huge influx, though the costs of providing for the additional students are beginning to add up. "I think the thing that's saved us is that the distribution of the students has been pretty even across all grade levels," says school board member Mike Hefner.
This week alone, the school system was planning to spend $50,000 to transport and set up 10 new double-classroom portable buildings at the parish's five public high schools to ease overcrowding. The school system will also pay $1,200 per month for each building on a nine-month lease, according to Chief Operations Officer Vernal Comeaux. Overall, Hefner says the cost for new students in the school system, which includes expenses for staffing, facilities, books and uniforms, is approximately $4,200 per pupil, which could put the total tab for this year's new students at about $16.8 million. Hefner says the additional costs have been initially covered by the school board's $7 million fund balance. He anticipates LPSS will soon begin borrowing money from an outside source, though he hopes reimbursement funds from the state and federal government will soon be on the way.
One of the fastest-growing schools in the parish has been Lafayette High, which has taken in close to 300 new students and will be operating four new portable buildings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lafayette High English teacher Melinda Mangham is amazed with how well students and faculty have handled the situation. "Have people been inconvenienced? Have we had to manage some things? Yes, but this is nothing in the scheme of things. I'm very impressed that we've been able to integrate all the kids into the classes, and everyone has adapted well. We've just had to be very flexible. The lessons I think these kids are learning on both sides of the fence are lessons I think that are going to help them their whole lives."
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