Citizen’s group explores Lafayette’s ‘Future Needs’

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Brooke Whelan, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette junior, enjoys the weather on Monday from a bench at Girard Park in Lafayette. Whelan was working on a book of word puzzles. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Brooke Whelan, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette junior, enjoys the weather on Monday from a bench at Girard Park in Lafayette. Whelan was working on a book of word puzzles.

Citizens group explores Lafayette’s growing community

“It’s not just about feeling good. It’s about economic competition.” Kevin Blanchard, city-parish chief development officer

City-parish government has devoted so few resources to parks and recreation that spending would need to triple to develop a parks system comparable with Baton Rouge or other cities with robust recreational offerings.

That was one of the messages City-Parish Chief Development Officer Kevin Blanchard brought Monday to the city-parish Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee, a citizens advisory group created in February to explore Lafayette’s financial challenges and chart solutions.

The Parks and Recreation Department’s annual budget is about $12.5 million.

“We could double it and just get up to average,” Blanchard told the committee in a wide-ranging presentation that touched on recreation, reining in sprawl and the need to make it easier for folks to bike and walk in Lafayette.

Blanchard is helping shepherd the development of Lafayette’s Comprehensive Plan, a guidebook for the city’s long-term growth, and he told the Future Needs/Funding Sources committee that better recreation opportunities will be needed to attract the companies and workers needed to grow the local economy.

“It’s not just about feeling good. It’s about economic competition,” he said.

Blanchard said companies these days are keen on quality of life when deciding where to locate — arts, a lively culture, recreation.

“That’s part of the package,” he said. “The jobs are where they can get the employees to live.”

Any push to better develop Lafayette’s park system would be a major shift for city-parish government, which has little money for expansion after paying the bills to maintain existing facilities, even while the area has continued to show strong population growth.

City-Parish Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux, when speaking to the Future Needs/Funding Sources committee in March, laid out dismal prospects for the future of his department without an increased recreation tax or some other form of new revenue.

“We would love to grow the department, but the last 10 years have been survival,” he said.

The Parks and Recreation Department is supported by a 1.92-mill property tax that brings in about $2.5 million a year toward the overall $12.5 million annual budget.

Recreational fees, most notably for golf, bring in a few million dollars more to help pay the bills, but the department requires subsidies of about $5 million each year from other areas of the city-parish budget.

Boudreaux has said he fears those subsidies will likely lo se out in future budget battles when weighed against other pressing needs such as public safety.

The City-Parish Council in 2012 voted to put a recreation tax increase on the ballot but then changed course and cancelled the election with some councilmen saying city-parish needs should be considered as a whole rather than addressing financial problems piecemeal.

The Future Needs/Funding Sources committee emerged from the discussions that followed.

Blanchard on Monday also talked about strategies to lure developers and residents back into the core of the city, reversing the trend of more and more rural developments taking shape on former sugar cane fields in the unincorporated areas of the parish.

The tax base in unincorporated areas is so weak there is little money for basic infrastructure and services such as police and fire protection, roads, drainage, and water and sewer.

“You are going to hear a lot of noise coming from those people when the ditches aren’t maintained and the roads start breaking apart,” said Future Needs/Funding Sources committee member Chad Hanks.

The five-member committee has been hearing presentations from city-parish staff and department heads and is tentatively set to develop recommendations by January.