Lafayette, Louisiana, has a population of around 125,000. That makes it about the 200th largest city in the country; not really big but not really all that small either. It has a unique culture and geography, but the layout and design of the city are very ordinary American. Get outside of the core downtown and surrounding neighborhoods to visit the strip malls, big box stores and residential subdivisions and Lafayette looks like any other city you'll pass through.
I stress its unremarkable nature not to denigrate it in any way -- I love the city and I have a special fondness for the people of Lafayette -- but to help connect you, the reader, to a shared plight. Except for a small handful of North American cities -- literally five or less -- Lafayette provides an insight into why your city has no money.
Problems have solutions. Predicaments have outcomes. What is happening in Lafayette is not a problem; it's a predicament.
Along with my good friends and colleagues Joe Minicozzi and Josh McCarty of Urban 3, I was invited to work with the city of Lafayette to help them get a handle on why they could not keep up with infrastructure maintenance. Through a strange path, the city had found itself with a lawyer turned newspaper reporter -- a really sharp guy named Kevin Blanchard -- as their public works director. Questions that prior directors had found inconvenient to ask were now front and center.
Like most cities, Lafayette had the written reports detailing an enormously large backlog of infrastructure maintenance. At current spending rates, roads were going bad faster than they could be repaired. With aggressive tax increases, the rate of failure could be slowed, but not reversed. The story underground was even worse. Ironically, this news had historically been the rationale for building even more infrastructure (theory: this is a problem that we'll grow our way out of). That didn't make sense to Kevin or to the city's mayor, a guy named Joey Durel.
Joe, Josh and I interviewed all the city's department heads and key staff. We gathered as much data as we could (they had a lot). We analyzed and then mapped out all of the city's revenue streams by parcel. We then did the same for all of the city's expenses. This was the most comprehensive geographic analysis of a city's finances that I've ever seen completed. When we finished, we had a three dimensional map showing what parts of the city generated more revenue than expense (in business terms, this would be called profit) and what parts of the city generated more expense than revenue (again, in business terms, this is considered a loss).
Here's that map. In accounting terms, green equals profit and red equals loss. The higher the block goes, the larger the amount of profit/loss. If you have a sense of the basic layout of North American cities post World War II, you can figure out pretty easily what is going on here.