There is new construction on the Lafayette Middle School campus! But what is being built, how it came about and how much it cost may come as a bit of a surprise to you. This project has been in the works for nearly three years now. Rewind your government clock back to 2019 and prepare for the saga of a council(wo)man turned project manager and her struggle with basic sound thinking.
The year was 2019. The Lafayette City and Parish Councils were still consolidated and the council offices occupied by the same familiar public servants: Lewis, Boudreaux, Conque, Cook, Hebert, etc. ad nauseam. On April 23, 2019 an introductory ordinance came forward authorizing the filing of a “non-binding grant application with the National Fitness Campaign for funds to build a Fitness Court ®.” The same ordinance went before the City-Parish Council on May 7, 2019 for final adoption. According to the attached agenda item submittal form this would not have a “fiscal impact” despite the ordinance outlining a total project cost of $120,000! The ordinance said $30,000 was to be provided by Lafayette City-Parish Consolidated government with a matching $30,000 to be provided by National Fitness Campaign and additional $60,000 in community funding required for the grant. The item passed unanimously.
We know you may already have questions, like why is LCG constructing anything on a school campus? Is there a need for this? But the story doesn’t start there… nor does it end there.
Searching for more money
Prior to the introduction of the ordinance in March of 2019 Councilman Nanette Cook reached out to Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux in what may have been an attempt to garner support for the measure. In that message Cook advises Boudreaux that she wants “to put this fitness court at Acadian Park.” She adds: “I have spoken with Gerald [Boudreaux] already and he may be looking for some money to be put aside in the next budget.” Around the same time Councilman Liz Hebert seems to have learned of the measure and reached out to Gerald Boudreaux, who was Director of Parks and Recreation for LCG at the time, and Shanea Morrison Nelson, who was the Director of Community Development for LCG at the time, inquiring about where the court was to be located and whether any of the money outlined in the ordinance was to be used for the upkeep and maintenance. Gerald Boudreaux forwarded the message to Councilman Boudreaux who responded “direct all inquiries to Nanette.” Gerald Boudreaux replied “she does not get any response from me.” So much for communication between Councilman Cook and the Director of Parks and Recreation. Meanwhile, Councilman Cook responded to Councilman Hebert indicating that there were two possible locations, Acadiana Park and Thomas Park. Councilman Cook also indicated maintenance cost would be “minimal to start”, but did not provide any estimation of the cost.
On June 20, 2019 Councilman Cook received confirmation from the National Fitness Campaign that that City of Lafayette had been awarded the $30,000 grant. Councilman Cook responded by indicating she was currently in Portland for a city conference on “building healthy cities.” That trip cost taxpayers $2,337.10, by the way.
On July 1, 2019 Councilman Cook wrote Shanea Morrison Nelson and Belle LeBlanc, who was the Grants Coordinator for LCG at the time, and indicated “our National Fitness Campaign project is going to be great but more expenses have been brought to my attention after a phone conference this morning. The cost of court foundations and installation of this fitness court is not included in the additional $60,000. We may be looking at another $30,000…” In response Councilman Cook indicates that she will reach out to MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) remarking “They used to have more money hanging around until everyone got wind of it and now they have more projects than money 🙁 So, back to work on finding money!”
Not fiscally responsible
So what would you expect your elected official to do when they realize the cost to the taxpayer on an unnecessary project is expected to be an additional $30,000, or twice what was originally expected? Pull the plug? Not quite!
On September 2, 2019 Councilman Cook requested two budget amendments, one moving $14,885.50 from “levee improvements” to assist with covering the expected $30,000 shortfall on her Fitness Court® project. Councilman Cook was scrutinized for both requests, being informed that she could not used “drainage” money to fund parks and recreation and that her other proposed amendment would not be “fiscally responsible.”
On June 1, 2020 Councilman Cook initiated communication with Ryan Domengeaux with the Schumacher Foundation indicating “the remaining cost of the project is another $75,000.” On the same day in an e-mail to Mayor-President Josh Guillory regarding the project Councilman Cook wrote: “I have secured funds for just about all of the funding…”
On July 23 2020 Councilman Cook reached out to Fitness Court® staff indiacting “…my city attorney needs to review the NFC contract with Lafayette. He needs the information to create the agreement between the City of Lafayette and the Lafayette Parish School System.” Four days later in a separate e-mail message to Lafayette Parish School System Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Gardner she indicates: “I still need an additional $60,000.00 in funding to finish this project…” Councilman Cook continues: “One of my donors would really like to see our school children benefit from this fitness court.”
What budgetary issues? Full speed ahead!
During this same period of time Councilman Cook is attending meetings of the City-Parish Recreation Advisory Committee as they discuss the closures of several facilities due to budget issues. At no time does it appear Councilman Cook hesitated with moving her project forward knowing deep budget cuts were coming to Parks and Recreation.
On September 29, 2020 Councilman Cook writing to Ryan Domengeaux again indicated “we are working with LPSS to have this fitness court placed at a school site, Lafayette Middle School in fact.” “I now need to just raise $10,000.00 to have Lafayette Middle School match these funds…”
According to a quote dated May 10, 2021 received by LCG from National Fitness Campaign the totals cost of the equipment is $128,000.00 with a $30,000.00 reduction being credited for grant funding. Additional cost include $5,765.00 increase in raw steel cost and a $2,000.00 shipping cost bringing the total money due for the equipment alone to $105,765.00.
Can’t forget the lawyers!
The project has also cost the taxpayers close to $10,000.00 in legal fees. Between July of 2020 and October of 2021 Becker & Hebert billed $5,496.00 for work associated with the project. During that same period of time Paul Escott, APLC billed an additional $4,288.00 for work associated with the project. A request to the Lafayette Parish School Board inquiring about the total amount of legal fees spent on the project revealed that they weren’t quite sure. According to the School Board “…it appears that any work provided by the law firm would have been encompassed along with all other work provided by the firm on its monthly invoice. Those monthly invoices are available for inspection. However, we must inform you that the specific journal entries on the invoices would have to be redacted under the attorney-client privilege (and likely other privileges), as the journal entries reflect the legal advice provided by the firm to the School Board on a variety of issues. The redacted invoices would, however, contain the dates that legal services were provided, the time spent providing services, and the cost of same.” So in essence any work performed by the law firm would be contained in their monthly invoice, but we are going to scratch out most of the information on the document (as we always do) so you can’t make heads or tails out of what was paid.
The matter came before the Lafayette Parish School Board in June of 2021 seeking Board approval of “an intergovernmental agreement with the City of Lafayette authorizing the placement of a fitness court on the Lafayette Middle School Campus and a budget revision in the Self-Funded Construction Fund in the amount of $61,750 which includes $28,750 towards the cost of the fitness court and $33,000 for fencing for the area surrounding the fitness court.” The measure was approved.
The following month, on June 17, 2021, a message to Councilman Cook and several other individuals was sent by Ryan Domengeaux inquiring: “Are we all still shooting to raise the ~$210K to make the “whole” project a reality? Is there an update on the LPSS matching funding questions raised on our last call?”
On September 29, 2021, following concerns about the fitness court raised by an area resident, Councilman Cook authored a reply and submitted it to Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Cydra Wingerter for review. In the reply, she indicated that the concerned citizen “loves to twist my words.”
Where we are at the moment
So what have we learned? Three years ago Councilman Nannette Cook spearheaded a plan to create an adult fitness court in Lafayette. There appears to have been no documented need for such equipment, nor any coordination with the Parks and Recreation Department prior to the project being initiated. The original cost of $30,000 to the taxpayer has ballooned out of control with one community collaborator indicating a cost as high as $210,000. The Lafayette Parish School System, who was not an original party to the project, alone has put up over $28,500. Councilman Cook attempted to divert additional funds to the project from monies set aside for drainage even after learning that the money wasn’t sufficient to cover the cost of installation. As of this writing, LCG has issued a single payment to National Fitness Campaign for $105,765.
The project was later moved to a Middle School Campus, along with an additional $61,750 in taxpayer funds being diverted to this project that was originally intended for educating children. However, the Fitness Court® is specifically designed for use by adults, not children. The total cost to the taxpayers borne by Lafayette Consolidated Government and the Lafayette Parish School System remains unclear. And all this started with a project that was reported to have “no fiscal impact.”
Oh, and it’s still not finished.
If we’re not watching them, who will?
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