Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shifting demographics are on track to put a serious squeeze on city revenue and threaten our future.

When City-Parish President Joey Durel last week pulled an ordinance that could have ultimately led to the establishment of tax increment financing districts around I-10/I-49 and along parts of Ambassador Caffery — areas where the City-Parish Council could then vote to impose an additional sales tax devoted to infrastructure improvements within those districts — it was a gust of the political climate that is settling over Lafayette.

Some council members who initially supported the ordinance did a 180, I’m told, after being deluged by calls from outraged tea party types opposed to any new tax. In the comment section to the blog we posted on Durel pulling the ordinance, one even gloated about some Republican councilmen’s reelection prospects: “Election time next year. Hope these two like tea.”

While I like the concept of a TIF district — it’s a voluntary tax (don’t shop there if you don’t want to pay it), and the revenue is devoted to upgrades within that district — the plan to string TIF districts along Ambassador and the interstates seems too far reaching. Toss some TIFs along Johnston Street and then most of the commercial districts in Lafayette could be subject to a sales tax without voter approval. It’s a slippery slope.

But it doesn’t change the fact that tax revenue is vital to Lafayette’s development, for the construction of new roads and the widening of existing ones, for our schools and public facilities. Yet we seem to be entering an era when both political will and demographics are conspiring to put the city of Lafayette on a trajectory to becoming an inner city, a New Orleans with neither the big nor the easy.

This is not an original idea nor is it mine; it’s a word of caution I’ve heard from elected officials like Assessor Conrad Comeaux and community leaders like Cajundome Director Greg Davis — smarter and more politically attuned than me.

Consider demographic changes in Lafayette since the 1992 vote to consolidate, based on figures from the secretary of state and Comeaux’s office.

In 1992, 66.5 percent of the total assessed value of property in Lafayette Parish was within the city of Lafayette. In 2010 that percentage has fallen to 59.6. And the percentage of registered voters in the city — 62.6 percent in 1992 — has fallen to 55.5.

Dig a little deeper into those last statistics and another picture emerges: Families are leaving the city.

Most sources I consider reliable project that when Lafayette Parish gets the results of the 2010 census back next spring, the city of Lafayette will comprise about 52 percent of the parish’s population. When the city’s registered voter population — i.e., adults — is higher than its population of all residents, the number of children in the parish increasingly live outside the city.

This is a textbook case of what is commonly called white flight, but what I prefer to call green flight: Those with the financial means to move out of a city’s urban core do so. It’s what happened in New Orleans over the last few decades as families moved out of Orleans Parish and into Jefferson and St. Tammany. It’s what is happening en masse in Baton Rouge as the better-to-do flee to Central, Zachary, Denham Springs and beyond. Baker, Central and Zachary in East Baton Rouge Parish each has its own school system; they essentially seceded from the parish.

Now look at political party affiliation in Lafayette. In ’92, 60 percent of registered voters in the city were Democrats; today that percentage is just under 41 percent. Republicans have shown modest gains during that 18-year span — from 27 to 33 percent. The substantial growth has been among those who have no party affiliation: 26 percent of city voters have no party affiliation today; in ’92 it was just 13 percent.

If we accept the conventional wisdom that Republicans and independents tend to be more fiscally conservative and embrace a “no new taxes” mantra, we now live in a city that is 60 percent either/or.

What does that mean for future tax propositions? In the short term, it means the property tax recommended by CSRS for public school facilities, which is likely to be on a ballot either next fall or spring 2012, will fail miserably.

These changes overlap a more than decade-long effort to both revitalize Lafayette’s urban core and cope with suburban sprawl. But if every tax proposition is rejected by voters or avoided out of political fear by elected leaders, if we continue to ignore our public schools, our future as a city will be decided. And that’s not drinking the tea; that’s quaffing the Kool Aid.

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