Durel is gearing up for the final rounds of the fiber battle, as Cox Communications and BellSouth's lawsuit challenging the initiative should be ruled on in the coming months. But fiber isn't the only issue he's facing. Key expansion and infrastructure projects are looming; the city is facing a number of police department-related lawsuits; and budget challenges are ongoing.
Durel agreed to a 45-minute interview with The Independent in advance of his State of the City-Parish Address. No question was off-limits, and Durel ' fitting his no-nonsense business background ' gave candid answers on a wide array of subjects ranging from arts and social services funding to parish expansion. If his responses are indicative of his second year agenda, Durel's going to have his hands full ' and will be making new friends and foes along the way.
If Judge Hebert rules in favor of BellSouth and Cox for a public referendum on LUS' fiber-to-the-home initiative, do you plan on appealing the decision or focus instead on winning the public referendum?
I think we'd look at both possibilities. I guarantee you that if there was a referendum vote today, it would win hands-down. I get out in the community a lot. I've gone to neighborhood meetings with people who have called me and said, "We supported you, we like a lot of what you're doing, but we're all very upset about what y'all are doing getting into the private sector." I offered to have coffee with one woman in her neighborhood. They had a good group of people in her house, and when it was finished, the two most common questions I got were, "How soon can I get it?" and "What can we do to help?" What she told me was, "Mr. Durel, you've got to do a better job of getting your message out there." I told her that I'd talk until I'm blue in the face. I'll go anywhere, anytime. But we know if it goes to a referendum, [Cox and Bellsouth] will spend millions and millions, for something we can't spend that kind of money on.
If it goes to referendum, it would be expensive for LCG with attorneys' fees and public relations costs, etc. Have you talked about a cap of what you're willing to spend on the fiber-to-the-home project?
I think the greatest hope is that there have been a lot of people that have come up to me and said, "What can we start doing with private dollars?" That would be a direction some people might take, where private money goes into some other fund and they help combat it. If necessary, I'll go door-to-door just like we did during the campaign. I think we could activate an army of people that recognize the significance of this, and it'll be a grassroots campaign. [BellSouth and Cox Communications] can't compete with our hard work, I promise you.
What's the level of discourse you get from residents on this issue compared to other issues?
I think Bruce Conque said it best: he's heard more about the smoking ordinance than he's heard about fiber-to-the-home. As far as there being a level of discourse, there's almost zero for me. Without fail, and I can say this across the board 100 percent, every single time I've talked to a rotary or a neighborhood group, I have people come up to me after, and say, "I wasn't sure about this or I was against this, but now that I understand it, how soon can you hook me up?" How do you get that message that I give in a 15-20 minute talk to everybody?
I can't imagine how anybody that truly understands this could be against it. It's beyond me.
One theory is that all the back-and-forth between LCG and Bellsouth and Cox Communications is posturing, and a deal's going to be cut.
I'd bet money on that. If there was any hope of a public/private partnership, and I've let them know, before we meet again, send me a proposal in writing. Give me a starting point. Because the talk is cheap and boring. I've begged them to be a part of this, or do it themselves. If there's any hope of a deal, it's only after they know that all of the shenanigans like filing lawsuits don't matter. Once they realize that this is going to happen with or without them â?¦
Since it's turned into such a big issue and protracted battle in your first year, do you feel that it's taken away from some of the other things you hoped to achieve in your first year, or diverted your time from other issues?
I've wondered about that, too. What would I be doing if this had never come up? Would I be bored? This has been so exciting. I told my wife when I got into here that I spent my entire life since college opening stores and being entrepreneurial, and I thought I was leaving that behind. Then this pops up, and it's like opening a new business. This is no different than opening a new pet shop ' its just bigger and has more zeroes. But I've always said, when my competition starts talking good about me, I'm doing something wrong, because I'm not much of a threat. So I'm thrilled. There's nothing that's happened here that doesn't happen when you're opening any new business.
I feel like I've trained for 30 years for this job. I wouldn't be running the fire department if I wasn't doing [fiber-to-the-home], because we have a fire chief. I wouldn't be running public works because we have a public works director. I wouldn't be running parks and recreation. I do other things ' we have staff meetings every Monday, and we visit with the directors on a regular basis. Would we have already reorganized public works? Maybe not. But maybe we'd be closer to doing it.
There are jobs in there that are unnecessary. And if it was my business, it'd be already eliminated. But it's civil service, so we've got to work through a process. We've eliminated probably 11 or 15 jobs already in that one department. So I think we're working toward cutting more fat from government. But even if there were things that we would want to investigate more, the people I have around me are doing that anyway, like Bobby Cormier and Ben Berthelot as my administrative assistants that aren't just focusing on fiber. So I don't think it's slowed us down on a whole lot of things.
As far as trimming the fat from government, what's the biggest challenge you're facing budget-wise?
That's one of the things I'm going to focus on during the State of the City-Parish Address. But the biggest challenge is that from a debt standpoint, the amount of money we have at the end of every year to do extra things like buy police cars has gotten much tighter.
The biggest challenge is the whole issue of external agencies. That all began as I understand it about 15 or 16 years ago when the federal government gave communities like Lafayette a million dollars to do community-type things. Then of course, as it happens all the time, that grant goes away, and the [local] government continues to fund it with money that should be going to filling potholes and digging ditches, and that sort of thing. Now we're at a stage where we have 10 percent of the money that was available eight years ago to do those kinds of things. So with that 10 percent, we still have to clean litter, cut grass, dig ditches and try to buy police cars. And nobody in this community voted on giving external agencies money.
So now I'm put in that position ' and that's OK ' of being potentially the mayor that cuts all these wonderful programs and says we can no longer give them money. The perception is that we're cutting ' if we do it ' $400,000 or $500,000 from these wonderful programs. But the truth is, Big Brothers and Big Sisters gets $1,000. It's not like they're going to go out of business. Even Meals on Wheels, who gets tens of thousands of dollars, it's only 1 percent of their budget. So we're not killing them, we're just making them have to work a little bit harder, if we wind up having to do those things.
We have a Natural History Museum that when it was in the Oil Center was being subsidized with about $200,000 a year. We built this wonderful thing for downtown Lafayette, and it's important for economic development, but it's now being subsidized with almost a million dollars a year. So that jar continues to dwindle with no new revenue going into it.
With firemen, just a few years ago, they withheld 9 percent from their check, and we matched 9 percent. I believe today, we're having to put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 percent to their 9 percent. In not too many years, we'll be putting up 33 percent. Thirty-three percent on every dollar that they get paid we've got to give toward their retirement, because the people that were handling their retirement system were investing in things like golf courses. Everyone knows that's a high-risk deal. They blew it on bad investments, and you and I get stuck with the bill. Now money that could have gone to their raises or could have gone to hiring more policemen or firemen has to go to the retirement system. We had zero control over that. We were the innocent bystander in this, and that money is going to continue to be depleted.
You have parks and recreation. The city has a millage. I think it's $1.86 million for parks and recreation within the city. There is no parish-wide parks and recreation millage. So the city money has to stay within the city, but parks and recreation on the parish side is being subsidized by the parish general fund to the tune of around $2 million a year.
We are a growing parish, thank goodness. But the demands on parks and rec have increased, and the money isn't necessarily increasing.
That situation has to be dealt with. There's two ways to make money: You cut your expenses or you raise your income.
The perception in the community is that you are going to increase funding for arts agencies. Is that true?
I'd like to, but it's not as simple as that. That was my first, maybe most significant political faux pas this year. I said maybe we'll cut [social service external agency funding] in future years, but I coupled that with, let's put $200,000 aside for arts and culture. The perception is that arts and culture are these elitists in their tuxedos drinking wine and eating cheese. Arts and culture to me is Festival International and those things. It's a question of investment.
It was night owl bus service where I proposed a cut. Because of the hard stand we took on that, we negotiated something better. It's like I've said about fiber. We are not going to get the Bellsouths and the Cox Communications of the world to step up to the plate if we're in a position of weakness. We've got to be in a position of strength to have any hope. So by coming out strong against night owl bus service, we believe we've done something that's put some of the burden on the entrepreneur who owns that. We're going to help you break even, but if you want to make money, you've got to step up the plate.
You've got to start promoting this thing, you have to keep the buses clean, you got to do all the things everybody else has to do. That reduced the cost to us.
So that perception wasn't completely accurate, because my thing was we've got to get a return on our money. A return on government money isn't necessarily interest or dollars; it could be people served. And the information I was given on night owl bus service was that we were serving 200 unique people over the course of the whole year. So for $400,000, we're serving 200 mostly needy people. That service only existed two years, and before it, people got around and did what they had to do.
It was never intended to hurt poor or disadvantaged people ' it's intended to help. Because the money is going away, we have to do everything we can to increase our tax base so that we can help the poor and the disadvantaged. As I told the council, we can make some tough decisions this year, or in two or three years, at the rate we're going, you'll have no decisions to make, and much worse things will happen than what we're talking about this year.
So I said, cut out night owl bus service, because we're not getting a return investment. We did not say, let's give money to the arts community. We said let's keep money in a savings account, and [hope] a museum or somebody comes to us and says we have an opportunity to get King Tut here, and it will bring thousands of people to Lafayette, and that $200,000 will be matched by $200,000 from the state, and the tax dollars that we'd generate will more than pay back that $200,000 and put it back in the coffers of consolidated government. Tax-wise, even if we got back $180,000, but we have people buying in our restaurants and hotels and gasoline that are utilized by tourists, then we got a return. I think the arts and culture community and what we have to offer is extremely significant to economic development.
Do you have plans to raise taxes in any way, shape, or form?
Not right now. I don't even want to breathe that right now. If this community decides to do something fantastic ' Johnston Street is something where we have some great opportunities, and I've talked to Charlie Boustany and David Vitter about it. We've got a lot of potential pots of money; there are grants. If we put trolleys on there there's a better chance of us getting grants than if we put buses on there.
I think things are lining up real well in Lafayette. Charlie Boustany is vice chairman of the committee dishing out billions of dollars for coastal erosion. Charlie is from Lafayette and loves Lafayette obviously, and David Vitter did well in Lafayette. I think there's hope for getting some things done without necessarily raising taxes.
Another example, we're negotiating with Courtesy Motors on Johnston Street and trying to bury the power lines in front of them. They want to pay for whatever it costs, they'd just like to get it at cost. And they want to put a monument sign instead of a big tall sign. They're talking to us about them taking the initiative to bury the power lines and put a monument sign and raise the bar and show people what's available.
But should that initiative come from you or them? That's nice that they're doing that, but as far as beautifying Johnston Street and reducing signage, can LCG put a moratorium on above-ground lines?
On Johnston Street, they're all above ground. It's a question of having to get those buried. I want to see LCG bury the lines, but I see no point in burying the lines if we don't have a sign ordinance. Those two things have to happen. As a former retailer, I understand the retailer's perspective, and I think I can talk the language, and I can't imagine anyone being against a sign ordinance. The only complaint you'll get from the retailers is that they'll have to buy a new sign. They're not cheap all the time. What I'd like to see us do, if we can do it legally, is hold a carrot out there, and say we're passing a sign ordinance that's going to take effect 10 years from now. But if you change your sign the first year, you'll get nine years of some kind of tax relief. If you change two years from now, you'll get eight years from tax relief. But 10 years from now, you're changing your sign.
The sign ordinance has been talked about for a long time. What's preventing it from becoming a reality?
Motivation, just somebody doing it, I guess. What we're doing now is taking a section of Johnston Street from University to Doucet Road, and we're going to try and get that done as soon as they can. Johnston Street, if we want it to remain that backbone of the city, we all have to reinvest in it ' the federal, state, parish, city government, and the landowners along the road who are going to be most affected by it. If we can get this section done, then the other sections start begging for it.
You're supporting the Verot Road expansion before the Ambassador Caffery expansion â?¦
At this point.
[Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor] Conrad Comeaux, for example, says that there's $40 million for Ambassador waiting to be used, and it could raise the tax base, among other benefits. With those kind of arguments, why are you in favor of Verot?
Just because those statements are made, doesn't make them accurate. I've heard decisions being made by one group based on information that is the opposite of the information another group is making their decision on. When the money's available, where it's coming from ' they're making decisions based on contradicting information. I told [Director of Traffic and Transportation] Tony Tramel the day before yesterday I want to get the finance guy from DOTD, our regional guy Bill Fontenot, the chairman and vice chairmen of all the committees, and Randy Menard and Rob Stevenson as the chairman and vice-chairman of the council. And maybe get Bruce Conque from the south side and Dale Bourgeois from the north side to sit in on this, and we're going to get answers. If we're going to make a decision, let's all have the same answers.
I sat down with some people from DOTD, and there was never any talk about there being $40 million [for Ambassador] available today. We get $7 million a year for increasing capacity projects, which both of these roads would do. Well, we didn't use any in 2004; we can save the money up for this year, and next year when Verot is scheduled to be bid out, the money would be available. To do Ambassador Caffery, we'd have to save up another four or five years, which I've heard is $45 million. I've also heard $27 million, and that's two different numbers. So one of 'em's gotta be right, and we have to find out the real numbers.
Ultimately, my understanding is we can do Verot School Road, bid it out in 2006, which is what it's scheduled for right now, and then a year or so later they start doing Ambassador Caffery.
From a philosophical standpoint, with Verot, you're widening an existing artery, but with Ambassador you have the ability to add a new artery.
We know for sure Verot has traffic. It exists today and has a traffic problem, and we're about to empty more traffic on it with Camellia Boulevard. Now we have another arterial road going to Verot School Road, which is a substandard road. In theory, Ambassador Caffery South will help with traffic. But if we did Ambassador Caffery, we're helping bring more traffic into Lafayette, whereas by doing Verot we're helping to move the existing traffic in Lafayette better and first. I'm anxious to hear both sides of the debate, but not until we have accurate information.
I've heard some discussion about opening this brand-new road and the tax base increasing with all the commercial businesses that would open. Well, we have land all around Target on Ambassador Caffery that's still being taxed as agriculture. So just because you put cement on this road doesn't make it a higher tax base; not until we start building on it. And then just because you get the taxes doesn't mean it's all going to build Verot School Road. Those taxes go to the School Board, they go to the fire department, the police department, they go to a lot of other things, and it's not all city taxes.
Is LCG using any smart growth principles in regards to preservation as they apply to all these different expansion projects?
Johnston is all about redoing and starting over to get to smart growth practices. One of the goals with Johnston Street is to raise the bar. We're doing it, but it's being done in sections. And as you do sections, like Camellia Boulevard, it raises the bar. What River Ranch has done raises the bar. Anybody who develops a subdivision in Lafayette now looks at how they're going to compete with that. They may not want that exact kind of subdivision, but they've got to do something to give people a reason to buy there.
You recently started looking at a long-term annexation program for the rest of the parish.
I'm putting together a PowerPoint presentation, and I want to start visiting with each of the mayors. That would entail smart growth, but also, we've got to have some rhyme or reason for what we're doing. Lafayette's grown 136 percent since 1974; Duson's grown something like 140-something percent. Scott, Carencro and Broussard, the three of them have grown somewhere between 1,400 and 1,700 percent. Youngsville's growth is phenomenal. But Youngsville is now 64 times larger than its infrastructure was meant to handle. So we can't just have people landgrabbing the smaller towns or Lafayette and not be able to provide the services that are required. Also, what's happening is they're smothering Lafayette. One of the things I want to be able to talk to them about is a potential parish-wise sewer district.
There are some things we can do to help the entire parish, but give them some incentive and say, "Y'all start growing out ' leave these last areas between you and us, and let Lafayette have that." Whether they like that statement or not, at least we start talking. Good things come out of controversy; good things ultimately happen when you start discussing things. Nothing good happens without communication, and nothing bad happens because of communication. So no matter what it is, I'd just as soon throw it on the table and let it do what it does. It's got to be addressed.
There are lawsuits pending involving the police department. What is the current insurance policy the city has? Can Lafayette withstand a hypothetical $10 million judgment against it?
I'm sure not. That's a risk that, as a lawsuit goes through, we run the risk of losing it, and those that are suing run the risk of winning but not getting anything. That's a real good negotiating area to try and work this kind of stuff out.
Have you considered consolidation of law enforcement?
I don't think so. I don't hear any great outcry on it. I think right now as I go to meetings like the Louisiana Municipal Association, people all over the state have their eye on New Iberia. Just because they've done it doesn't mean it won't get undone.
Are there any big-ticket items you plan on rolling out next year or in the rest of your term?
I would love for us to be the first parish ' the first county in the country, I think ' to become completely wireless. How we get that done is to be determined, whether it's some kind of public/private partnership, with incentives for private companies. Nothing would make me happier in the next 12 or 18 months. I'm competitive. I want us to be first in everything. It's all about marketing, in a way. It's all about giving the national news media a reason to write about Lafayette.
One of the areas we consistently make national news for the wrong reasons is our consistently low rankings in education and job training.
Lafayette has one of the largest Catholic or private school systems in the country, and those kids aren't counted in those tests. That doesn't change anything; the perception will always be there statistically, but I think it's important that we take advantage of the things that we have. That's why I said in USA Today, we have an opportunity in a community to shine a light on a community and a state that needs a big win like this. We're sending a message to the rest of the world that Louisiana is a technologically advanced community. I think that goes into the educational column. If you're a technologically advanced community, you don't picture blue collar workers, you picture an educated workforce.
Maybe we need to promote that better. Gregg Gothreaux says it all the time: Lafayette's biggest problem is that we're located in Louisiana and because of the perception that we have. We have to change that perception. Some of the things we're doing are working toward that. There's some realities we have to deal with. All we can do from this side is be supportive ' I've met with [Lafayette Parish School Superintendent] Dr. [James] Easton several times, I've had [UL President] Dr. [Ray] Authement in here. I'd like us to have a regular lunch out in the community, so people see that I take education seriously.
Is there anything with your business background and your success running businesses that you can bring to the public education system here?
I would hope I could make some kind of contribution. What you have is two completely different entities in a school system and a school board and Lafayette Consolidated Government. Obviously anything we can ever do to help â?¦ I hate to come back to it, but fiber is one of those things that can be a tremendous help to education. My dream would be for us to make Lafayette Parish wireless and make every school, including the university, free to all the students in the school. Fiber is going to change things in the classroom. Maybe we can do some of those things, not because of my business background, but it's that luck thing: opportunity and preparation meet, and we may have an opportunity to change things in education, or at least to benefit education.
The whole busing problem last year, we didn't prevent the problems, but we did give them something they had not been able to get for several years. I gave [School Board member] Mike Hefner the whole [Geographic Information Systems] CD with all the updates on the streets. We've got to share that with our school system and other government entities. Anything we can ever do with education, they know we're here.
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