Highlights from the Parish President’s Report of the St. Martin Parish Council Committee Meetings of January 18, 2022

SPECIFIC AGENDA ITEMS

I have the following observations relative to the following agenda items.

Item 1 of Administrative/Finance Committee Agenda-This item is addressed annually. Its subject matter embraces the provision of nutritional services associated with the Women, Infants, and Children (“WIC”) Program. It is a necessary component of that program, which is offered by, and an integral part of the services provided by our Health Units.

Item 2 of Administrative/Finance Committee Agenda-This resolution will allow me to contract for incarceration services relative to juvenile offenses. This is also an annual contract. However, please note that the number of juveniles at the Lafayette Juvenile Detention Home is at or near capacity and has been for quite some time. Fortunately, there are few instances where the judges of our District order the housing/incarceration of juveniles.

Item 5 of Administrative/Finance Committee Agenda-This matter is also done annually. It calls for the application for a grant, administered through the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The purpose is to provide transportation services primarily for the elderly. The subgrantee is the St. Martin Parish Council on Aging. The program has worked well for several years.

UPDATE ON WASTE DISPOSAL PROGRAM

We have completed the second week under the new waste collection program with Waste Connections. The transition has been relatively smooth with most of the issues addressing isolated instances of missed roads/routes and issues with container placements. Each problem which has surfaced has been addressed by Waste Connections without significant delays in responding. Many residents have complained about not being advised of the date(s) of collection prior to the initiation of the program. However, as you are aware, since November the Parish has published information relative to ALL aspects of the program, inclusive of schedules, via print media, social media, and television. Nonetheless, in the face of any inquiry, one can determine his/her collection schedule by:
The Waste Connection web page;
The Parish Government web page;
The WestConnect app; or
Contacting Waste Connections by telephone.

One potentially critical matter which merit discussion is that approximately 30% of the households/residences identified by Waste Connections, and to whom bills were sent, have not paid. The billings were mailed on December 1, 2021. At a meeting with Waste Connections officials on Wednesday, January 12, 2022, this issue was discussed and at that time it was agreed that the problem was likely attributable to a combination of factors including mistaken addresses, issues with the postal service, a lag time between receipt of payment and a recordation thereof, and residents’ outright failure to pay. Inexplicably, there are numerous individuals who are adamant that they should not be compelled to pay for waste collection believing that this service is included “in their taxes.”

Data regarding the aforesaid “delinquencies” is still being evaluated, and I suspect that the number will be reduced significantly. Late Friday afternoon I was informed that Waste Connections had identified an extremely large number of billings which has been returned by the postal service.

Waste Connections will continue to service ALL containers for another week while we continue to survey and navigate this problem. However, thereafter any residence which has been identified as not having paid will NOT be serviced. Two weeks thereafter, containers at those locations will be collected. Consequently, at the OUTSET of the program nonpaying residents will be identified and/or billing issues disclosed as opposed to have to wait years before the matter is identified and resolved.

The ability of Waste Connections to respond to unforeseen events and hence prevent missed collections is demonstrated by two unexpected incidents. During the first week of service, one of the company’s new trucks experienced mechanical issues. In the second week, one truck was rear ended by a driver who had fallen asleep. On both occasions, a replacement truck was immediately secured, and collections completed timely.

Finally, as you will recall, during the week of December 20, 2021, Public Works crews collected both waste and vegetative debris which had not been serviced for numerous reasons. They were assisted by trusty crews provided by Sheriff Breaux. In a three-day span, 240 cubic yards of waste (bulk and otherwise) was collected. This computed to approximately 50 tons. 120 cubic yards of vegetative debris, approximately 24 tons, was collected. I extend my appreciation to our public works personnel and Sheriff Beckett Breaux for his assistance.

LAKE MARTIN UPDATE

Last month I reported that:

“On August 3, 2021, Resolution Number 21-061-RS was adopted. The resolution authorized me to confect an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries relative to the repair, rehabilitation, and maintenance of the structures and parking areas at Lake Martin. Since that time, several draft agreements were prepared for review by my office and the legal staff at DWLF. As I advised in previous reports, the DWLF concurred in our suggested revisions to its original draft. Immediately upon receipt of the final document last month, I signed it and submitted it to DWLF. Essentially, the agreement obligates DWLF to repair the structures (landing/boardwalk), and the Parish will assume the future maintenance thereof within our budgetary abilities, of course. Meanwhile, under the agreement, the Parish will maintain the parking area which we have always done as part of our maintenance of Rookery Road.

After execution of the final agreement, I met on several occasions with DWLF officials, Daniel Hill and Raynie Harlan, to discuss the repairs and maintenance of a peninsula area adjacent to and south of the boat ramp. On December 10, 2021, on site at Lake Martin, our Director of Public Works and I conferred with both of them, the architect, and contractor for the structure rehabilitation. The parameters of the project were discussed, and at that time it was agreed that there was no reason to delay the construction work. Hence, on Wednesday, December 15, 2021, the repair work commenced. The project should be completed by the Spring. Fortunately, the boat ramp will remain open during construction since one side at a time will be repaired/reconstructed. The parking lot will not be rehabilitated until completion of the pier and ramp work.

I wish to compliment Mr. Hill and Ms. Harlan for their appreciation of the value of having the Lake open to the public with functionable, safe structures. Of course, Secretary Jack Montoucet of DWLF has been both committed and cooperative, recognizing the public benefit offered by the Lake. Finally, the legal staff at DWLF has been professional in their work on this matter.”

I am pleased to report that the vast majority of the repair/construction work has been completed. Signage has been prepared, and I attach with the e-mail transmitting this report a pdf file depicting a replica of one of the signs which will soon be erected.
Once the construction has been formally accepted, I will have public works prepare a schedule relative to the Parish remediation of the parking area. I will keep you posted.

ROOKERY ROAD

As all of you are aware, since May 21, 2021, Rookery Road has been closed at its intersection with Prairie Highway (La. Hwy. 353). The closure has been necessary because of the deterioration of the subsurface which presented itself as a consequence of the torrential rainstorms in the area which started in May 2021 and was constant for several months. In late summer, it became evident that our Public Works Department could not repair the roadway; thus, Site Engineering, Inc. was retained to investigate the cause of the subsurface failure and potential remedial steps which could be adopted to solve the issue.

After a detailed geotechnical investigation, Site Engineering confirmed the subsurface failure and submitted exclusive options or recommendations relative to site preparation and surface design. The recommendations/options were then presented to C.H. Fenstermaker and Associates for a cost estimate for each. The estimates range from $576,410 to $663,796.

Site Engineering has advised that each option provides the same level of benefit and life cycle. Also, the life expectancy of each option (approximately 20 years) is particularly uncertain because of the fact the road is prone to flooding. Consequently, given the fact that each option seems to provide equal benefits and life expectancy, the main factor to consider is cost.

The next step is to review all of the foregoing with C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates personally to ensure that all factors associated with this matter are fully vetted. At this point, it is obvious that the road must remained closed.

HERMAN DUPUIS PONTOON BRIDGE REPLACEMENT

I last reported on this project last November at which time I advised in pertinent part that:

“… The project consists of the removal and replacement of the existing pontoon and timber bridge with a new concrete and steel swing span bridge. The existing bridge will be removed and disposed of by the contractor. The new bridge structure will be placed along the same alignment as the old bridge and will have fewer pile bents in the channel. The structure will be 24.5 feet wide and 275 feet long. The work will be done using cranes placed on barges. The bridge will be supported by 24-inch diameter P.P.C. driven piles and abutments located outside the channel. The preliminary budget for the project is approximately $8 million inclusive of engineering fees.

The original project schedule was as follows:
October 2019: Engineering Services Contract signed with Huval and Associates
October 2019-May 2021: Design/Plan Preparation
May 2021: Preliminary Plans Complete
August 2019-August 2020: USACE Permitting
August 2020-May 2021: Plan Adjustment/Wetland Mitigation
May 2021: USACE Permit Issuance
May 2021-June 2021: Project letting/Advertisement
July 6, 2021: Bid Opening
July 20, 2021: Project Award (Shavers Whittle)
July 21, 2021: Pre-Construction Meeting
July 28, 2021: Final Contract Signed
August 2021: Notice to Proceed Issued
September 2021: Construction commencement (305 working days)
December 2022: End Construction

Although, the contract was confected in July, the commencement of construction was unfortunately delayed because of the rehabilitation of the I-10 East and West ramps by DOTD at the Butte LaRose Exit (Exit 121). The East bound exit and entrance ramps have now been completed (as of November 8, 2021) and the work on the West bound ramps should, according to DOTD, be completed this month. Of course, we could not begin the bridge replacement while access to Butte LaRose was impaired because of the I-10 construction.

Therefore, construction of the bridge replacement will likely begin in early to mid-January 2022. We are still hopeful that the project will be completed on schedule, December of 2022.

The contractor has begun staging equipment at the site so that once the I-10 ramps are completed, work on the bridge can commence without any further delay.

Two questions have surfaced regarding this project. The first address whether the Butte LaRose community will be allowed to decorate the bridge for Christmas this year. The answer to that query is in the affirmative UNLESS DOTD completes the west bound ramp renovations early which is not expected. The second question is whether the old structure can be salvaged for historical purposes. It is the preference of the Parish and the contractor to disassemble the bridge and move it to another location in the area; however, it is unknown whether the structure will remain intact during its disassembly so as to permit its relocation. The engineers for the project are not optimistic that any part of the bridge can be salvaged. Nonetheless, all efforts will be made to preserve as much of the structure as possible.”

As set forth in the foregoing, the project has up to this date been delayed because of the ramp rehabilitation by DOTD at Exit 121 on Interstate 10. Last Thursday, DOTD informed us that their work on the ramps should be completed by the end of the week of January 17, 2022. If this is indeed the case, then the disassembling of the Pontoon Bridge can commence. Of course, this will necessitate the closure of the Pontoon Bridge until the new one has been constructed and installed. Thus, we will likely delay the commencement of the disassembling by 2 to 3 weeks to allow the Parish to post the necessary notices of the closure. The closure is almost certain to occur sometime between February 7th and February 14th. When the actual date is determined you will be notified, and then the necessary notices will be disseminated.

AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN ACT

On June 15, 2021, I presented to you a detailed report on the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (“ARPA”). The portion of that monumental legislation which is of grave significance to St. Martin Parish is Section 603 which establishes a 132.2-billion-dollar fund for local governmental units. The key takeaways from that presentation were:
*All uses of the funds must be related to a reduction of general revenue or infrastructure deficiencies causally related to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
*Exceptions to the COVID-19 relationship criterion appear to be uses related to water and sewer, broadband, and the recovery of general fund losses in limited instances.
*Funds cannot be used for new buildings or renovations, roads, bridges, or drainage.
*Serious questions existed relative to the allowable uses of the funds fall within the parameters of whether such funds can be used for public-private partnerships for water and broadband.
*There was no guidance currently relative to the use of funds for prison facilities.
*Funds must be committed before December 31, 2024, and all projects completed before December 31, 2026.

After that report, the United States Treasury published additional guidance (an updated “Interim Final Rule” issued on July 19, 2021). After conferring with Postlethwaite & Netterville, the accounting/consulting firm who is assisting the Parish in the mandated reporting associated with the receipt and spending of the ARPA funds, I slightly revised that previous plan which I presented to you in August 2021. At that time, I disclosed that two specific areas of the ARPA plan were water services and the expansion of broadband to the underserved and unserved areas of our Parish. Furthermore, as I have commented in the past, both endeavors would include public-private partnerships to achieve sustainability for the future especially in the broadband field. The specific projects could be completed within the sunset periods allowed by the Act.

As an aside, I note at this juncture that the plan was incorporated in out FY 2022 budget. Nonetheless, I have opined to you that the projects selected, and the amounts assigned to each, would likely change as the Treasury guidance evolved. Furthermore, the trillion dollars-plus infrastructure bill is still making its way through Congress and its passage could have an impact on selected uses of the ARPA funds. Unfortunately, and in my view inexplicably, there is nothing specific in the legislation despite the fact that it is still conceptually being debated.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, there have been significant developments, all positive, in the recent weeks. First, I have crystallized negotiations with several companies for broadband services. Final decisions/agreements are dependent upon awards for funding through the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development & Connectivity. Several millions of dollars are available for broadband expansion in unserved and underserved rural areas through what is known as the GUMBO program created by state legislation adopted last Summer. Applications were due December 31, 2021. The projects embraced by my plan and “in-principle” agreements were part of the applications submitted by the providers with whom I have dealt. Indeed, our commitments are significant factors included in the grading process for the GUMBO awards.

The three providers submitting applications are Cajun Broadband for services which embrace the Cade Community to St. Martinville, Allen Communications for services in lower St. Martin and upper St. Martin from Division Road in Arnaudville extending down La. 31 to near Declouet Highway and down La. 686 to near Cecilia High School Road, and LUSFiber for coverages down La. Highway 94 and the Cecilia Community. These three endeavors will provide services to over 7,000 residences, and in excess of 500 commercial facilities. They entail approximately 150 miles of fiber. I will be happy to meet with any of you at any time to examine the particular areas embraced by the applications. Please note that this is simply the first step. Once the GUMBO awards are announced, I will prepare a detailed report for each of you.

The second development which has occurred recently is that Treasury rendered a final rule on January 6, 2022, which allows local parishes to utilize the ARPA funds for general revenue purposes up the ten million dollars. While this will not affect the current plans, it will allow the money to be used without moving funds around as we were forced to do in order to comply with the prior “interim final rules.”

Finally, it must be noted that TO DATE we have received only the first portion of ARPA funds. The allotment to which St. Martin Parish is entitled under ARPA is 10.3 million dollars, payable in two equal tranches. The second allotment will be released in March 2022. At that time, I will feel more comfortable with the implementation of our plans since I do not want to finalize anything until the “money is in the bank.”

I conclude by making reference to my prior discourse on water system issues and the need for broadband in my report of March 16, 2021, before ARPA:

“The Administration is continuing to explore the consolidation of several water districts within our Parish. In the last several weeks, I have had productive meetings among the representatives of the interested systems, the Louisiana Department of Health, and Mr. Jason Akers of the firm of Foley and Judell. Conceptually, the consolidation will be accomplished by the establishment of a new water system created by ordinance of the Parish. The governing board will be representatives of all of the systems which are included in the consolidation. Then, intergovernmental agreements will be confected among the newly created system and each participating water district or system. The right to control rates and the geographical district which each component will serve will be defined.

Meanwhile, Sellers and Associates is developing the necessary geographical boundaries of each participating system AND the district to be created by ordinance. Furthermore, Sellers and Associates is surveying and identifying the rate structure, infrastructure strengths and weaknesses of each participant. It is anticipated that this work will be completed within the next 60 days. At that time, we will entertain another meeting to assess the progress of this venture.”

“In this “post-COVID” economy, the challenge to introduce fiber broadband to rural communities has become critical and as important as OTHER basic utility services. The capacity to upload, download, and live stream, often simultaneously while others are doing the same tasks in a home or commercial setting, has significant implications on rural economic development.”

PRESENTATIONS ON PROJECTS

Beginning in February, at each committee meeting I will have either the Director of Public Works or the Project Manager present an update on a major drainage project. The presentation will include up-to-date developments and prospective schedules. For projects which are under construction, actual photographs will be displayed. Each featured project presentation will include an outline of costs, benefits, funding sources, and other important aspects of the undertaking.

I intend for the first presentation to feature the 2021 Road Improvement Project.

TAX COLLECTIONS

I have evaluated the tax collection reports for the year 2021. I present the following summary and invite your comments and impressions.
A. Collections for Sales Tax District #1:
Total Net Collections for 2021: $3,713,946.29
Total Net Collections for 2020: $3,012,074.13
Net Increase: $701,872.16 or 23.3%

Average Monthly Collections:
2021: $309,495.52
2020: $251,006.17

B. Collections for Sales Tax District #2:
Total Net Collections for 2021: $1,398,364.20
Total Net Collections for 2020: $1,146,084.06
Net Increase: $202,280.14 or 17.64%

Average Total Monthly Collections:
2021 $112,363.68
2020: $95,507.00

It seems to me that one can cogently conclude that COVID-19 and the 2021 adverse weather events have not had a negative impact on sales tax collections. Indeed, I reference the post-pandemic and pre-pandemic analysis I prepared last year for my January 2021 report. However, our optimism must be tempered by the high rate of inflation and significant job loss numbers reflected in state and national reports. Also, the Parish’s financial landscape is sufficiently dictated by our ad valorem tax collections for which I will have an analysis for the February report. The outlook in that arena appears to also be favorable although not as significant as that of the sales tax collections.

I further note that our sales tax collections in both tax districts were greater in the last quarter of 2021 than in any previous quarter over the last ten years

The total hotel/motel tax collections for 2021 were $316,856.81 compared to 2020 collections of $292,946.44. This computes to a $23,910.37 (8.16%) increase from last year. Our hotel/motel tax collections in 2021 were in fact the highest since 2015. I remain optimistic that if in the Spring of 2022 there is a marked reduction in COVID-19 issues comparable to what we experienced in the fall of 2021, there will be greater hotel/motel tax returns because of the resumption of the fairs and festivals for which our region is noted.

Video Poker revenue for 2021 totaled $2,053,690.22. Last year, our collections were $1,514,281.78. Thus, our collections were $539,408.44 greater than 2020. This reflects a 35.62% increase. I have no esoteric, economic explanation to offer for this marked and unexpected windfall.