Highlights from the Parish President’s Report of the St. Martin Parish Council Committee Meetings of January 21, 2020

On January 7, 2020, I attended the oral arguments presented to the Louisiana Third Circuit of Appeal.

I was pleased with the appellate arguments espoused by our attorney and the questions posed by the judges on the panel captured what I have always believed are the seminal issues in this case. As I have previously noted, there are legitimate issues on both sides. Of great concern to me was the position advanced by counsel for Champagne that challenged the efficacy of our zoning ordinance. Nonetheless, I look forward to the resolution of this case which will hopefully introduce some clarity as to what activities can or cannot be conducted in the Lake Martin area. It normally takes 30-45 days from oral argument for an appellate court to render a written decision.

At your August Committee meetings, I reminded you that there are several laterals throughout the Parish which, by state statute, are subject to 100-foot drainage servitudes in favor of the Parish. In some instances, the Parish has voluntarily reduced the limits of the servitudes. Nonetheless, the maintenance of these statutorily granted servitudes is essential to keeping our parish drainage system effective and efficient. However, the exercise of our servitude rights frequently poses numerous issues and questions as to exactly what Parish Government may or may not do within the 100-foot servitude. Moreover, there are countless problems which arise relative to the rights of the property owners whose lands are impacted by these servitudes. Nonetheless, it is well established that Parish Government has BOTH the right and duty to maintain these statutory canals. A landowner cannot legally prevent the exercise of those statutory, legal servitudes. Unfortunately, all too often homes and other structures have been constructed within Parish Government’s servitude, preventing access to the channel. We solicit the cooperation of the public relative to the exercise of our duties to maintain these laterals. If necessary, we will seek mandatory injunctive relief to insure we discharge our duties to maintain the canals in our drainage system.

The roads which are in need of work have been identified by district. Moreover, our road engineers have inspected each road and assigned “grades” to each. We are in the process of identifying the specific remedial work needed on each road so that a firm decision can be made as to how to proceed. In any regard, our 2020 budget appropriates 1.5 million dollars for road improvements which frankly will not address anywhere near the total of our road needs. As a matter of fact, the total cost to repair every single road has been estimated at over 18 million dollars.
At your meeting, Mr. Phil Parker of Duplantis Design Group (our road engineers) will make a presentation explaining our road project for 2020, and discuss the evaluation system for addressing the improvements. Please note that if a particular road is not addressed this year, the street will “roll over” to next year for improvements.

I feel compelled to remind you that our road improvements is primarily financed through Sales Tax District #1 which generates approximately 2.6 million dollars annually. A portion of those proceeds is used to pay on the bond indebtedness for which the sales tax was pledged in 2002 (20 year bond). Moreover, in discussing road projects with other parishes, it becomes obvious that the condition of our Parish roads exceeds the condition of roads in other parishes similarly situated. Thus, the integrity of Sales Tax District #1 must be diligently preserved both from the tax perspective (1 cent sales tax) and its boundaries (all of the unincorporated portions of the Parish as of 2002).

On a final note, I remind you that the 2016-17 road improvements project was funded by the surplus which had accumulated in the Sales Tax District #1 fund (totally). We expended 5 million dollars for the improvement of over 70 roads.

I am very close to completing the confection of our insurance program for 2020. With some potential variances as I await quotes for alternative coverage parameters, the total cost of our insurance coverage is itemized below:
Liability and Casualty: $232,782.00
Property Insurance: $191,767.00
Fire Serviced District: $157,282.00
Workers Compensation: $174,159.00
Cyber Liability: $9,674.51
Healthcare: $1,792,654.72
TOTAL: $2,558,319.23

For casualty coverages, we were presented with the option of increasing our self-insured retention from $50,000 to $75,000 which would save approximately $23, 345.00. However, one major claim will absorb this saving with an SIR increase to $75,000. I am still evaluating this proposal although I do not anticipate that I will embrace an increase in the SIR. As it now stands, these are the amount of the increases/decreases in the costs of our coverages:
Liability and Casualty: $44,845.00 increase
Property Insurance: $3,140.00 increase
Fire Service District: $898.00 increase
Workers Compensation: $7,000.00 decrease
Healthcare: $55,487.21 increase

The most significant increases in our coverages are with Liability and Casualty and healthcare which, respectively, reflect increases of 23.86% and 3.32%. Particularly disconcerting in that both of these coverages are “claims driven.” Unexpected healthcare expenses in the last few months of 2019 prevented a more modest increase while our casualty coverage reflects 6 major claims in the last five years. There were only two major claims in the 5 years prior to that period of time. If the final decision is to increase our SIR to 75,000.00, the increase will be reduced to 12.42%. The 3.32% increase for our healthcare coverage is, all things considered, reasonable.

I am awaiting a quote for professional liability coverages associated with our health units and tail coverage for the previous medical services rendered at the jail before the effective date of our contract with St. Martin Hospital.

In conclusion, the most significant exposure for our coverages lies in the casualty arena. The upcoming legislative session will focus on tort reform according to the media. As such, I will make a special effort to vet all legislation which reduces the liability exposure for governmental entities and advise you accordingly in order that we can express our impressions and interests to our legislative delegation when deemed apropos.

I remind each of you of the upcoming conference sponsored by the Police Jury Association of Louisiana. It is scheduled for February 11-14, 2020, in Shreveport. I have not seen any agenda for the conference; however, I am hopeful that there will not be too many breakout sessions scheduled at the same time. If there are, I encourage all of us to attend separately various sessions, and then disseminate relevant information and materials to other Council members. The executive director of PJAL, our previous Parish President, had an excellent program schedule last year, and I expect that this year will be even better. He and I have had discussion over the last year on various topics which would be of benefit to St. Martin Parish and other parishes similarly situated.

Chairperson Leblanc has astutely requested that the Council consider asking the PJAL to adopt a resolution to establish a committee to study the issue with unfunded mandates imposed upon Parish Governments. I wholeheartedly embrace such a study and vociferously advocate for a comprehensive revision of Louisiana law relative to this issue. I presented on this topic at last year’s PJAL conference and have spoken on this issue at other organizations’ seminars/conferences. Of course, we discussed unfunded mandates at the recently completed in-service. Parish Governments are compelled to discharge and finance 2020 governmental duties/responsibilities based upon a 1950 model.

The Cecilia Civic Center is very near completion and should be ready for public use in the early Spring. Already, we are receiving requests for rentals of the facility. Hence, I am reviewing the contracts we have for the rental of our community centers and will hopefully follow the same format which has proven to be successful. I fully expect that the Cecilia center will serve residents from Districts 4,5,6,7, 8, and 9. The first step is to recruit one or more persons in the community who will be responsible for the administration of the center. Some of you have suggested possible candidates and I ask for any input you may have. Our challenge for all of our recreational centers in now to adopt all steps possible to properly maintain them and prevent any abuse of our premises.

I repeat my prior observations to you relative to the Louisiana Watershed Initiative:
I have previously reported to you on the Louisiana Watershed Initiative which was formed by the state in order to coordinate the development of flood control measures on a regional basis. Supposedly, 1.21 billion dollars in Community Development Block Grant funding will be made available to the state and local governmental units over the next several years. The state is divided into 8 watershed regions and upper St. Martin falls into Region 5 and lower St. Martin is assigned to Region 6. You have appointed me to the Steering Committee for Region 5, and I have appointed our Director of Public Works to serve on the Steering Committee for Region 6.

The first round of funding will be available in 2020 and will be in the amount of $100 million. Sixty million will be for the State of Louisiana, and 40 million will be equally divided among the 8 regions ($5 million each). The second round of funding is for $200 million and will be extended in 2022, and the final round will be for $270 million in 2024. The date for parishes to submit pre-application for potential projects in each region was December 20, 2019; however, that date was extended to January 17, 2020. The full applications are due on March 27, 2020.

I will be submitting applications on behalf of St. Martin Parish for all of our major flood protection projects: Bayou Estates Flood Wall, Coulee LaSalle, Bayou Fuselier-Ponte Brulee; Catahoula Lake Dredging; Joe Daigre Canal; and Breaux Bridge Manor. The fact that we already have funding sources which can serve as a “match” and the fact that we have plans already prepared, I believe, will inure to our benefit. Plus, we can certainly prove a valuable benefit to the entire Region 5 (and Region 6 relative to the Flood Wall).

The first meeting of the Region 5 Steering Committee is December 17, 2019, the date of our meeting. I will review the foregoing with you under Item 3 of the Agenda for the Public Works Committee meeting as well as what transpires at the December 17th initial meeting of the Steering Committee.

On Thursday, January 16, 2020, St. Martin Parish Government TIMELY submitted applications for all of the projects identified above. Moreover, I personally prepared proposed by-laws for the Region V Steering Committee and submitted same to APC, the LWI project administrator for Region V. I was, and remain, somewhat concerned that with 16 parishes represented on the Committee, there will be a myriad of competing interests being advocated at each meeting, thus potentially obfuscating an orderly and efficient decision-making process. I will keep you advised of the work of the LWI. Moreover, our Director of Public Works will represent St. Martin Parish on the Region VI Steering Committee of which lower St. Martin is a part.

The recreational program of Parish Government currently operates pursuant to the following parameters. The Parish has established by ordinance a nine-member steering committee which, pursuant to the dictates of that edict, manages all public parks and recreational facilities “situated within and belonging to the parish governing authority of St. Martin Parish.” Additionally, this steering committee has the authority to “provide for such charges and fees for the use of all public recreational parks and facilities as shall be deemed reasonable and necessary to defray or help defray the expenses of maintaining the equipment and grounds thereof.” Candidly, neither that steering committee nor its predecessor ever performed any such tasks. Rather, the aforementioned duties have been administratively handled; and from a practical perspective, it would be improvident to handle the management of the parks outside the administration. Indeed, this committee has met only on one occasion in the last several years.

Moreover, the actual establishment and operation of the programs, youth athletic leagues and general recreational activities, have been vested in what is referred to as “recreational directors.” These directors have served for several years: Rubin Hypolite (travel teams for tournaments across Acadiana); Blake Oubre (games in Cecile Rousseau Memorial Park in Parks); Randal Savoy (games played in Clayton Boudreaux Memorial Park in Catahoula); Rowdy Huval (games played in Paul Angelle Park in Cecilia); Wayne Oubre (games played in Magnolia Park in St. Martinville); Francis Reed (games played in Parc Hardy in Breaux Bridge); and Dana Neveu (Tutoring/Summer Enrichment Program, St. Martinville). The “Recreational Programmer” was formerly Patsy Thibodeaux who retired from the Parish last summer.

Candidly, the recreational program is in dire need of restructuring. As such, Ordinance Number 1287 has been submitted for your adoption. This ordinance abolishes the former “St. Martin Parish Recreational Steering Committee” (which serves no practical purpose) and replaces it with a six person “St. Martin Parish Recreation Board of Directors.” There is one director for each Park where games are played and a sixth “supervisory” director. The duties of this board will be precisely what the “recreational directors” now do-operate the youth sporting events in the parks. The proposed ordinance provides the that each director is appointed by the Parish President subject to confirmation by the Council. If additional programs are implemented at any additional parks, then additional directors can be appointed. The administration, as it does now and as it does with all directorships, will have the managerial responsibility in case issues develop which the directors cannot resolve. The purpose of this ordinance is to introduce clarity into the recreational program and to provide much needed structure and accountability to the program.

In accordance with the current operation of the recreational programs, the administration and overall use of our recreational facilities and community centers will remain an administrative function as will the supervision of any other programs or activities which may be sponsored at our recreational facilities.

For your edification, the directors who I wish to submit to you for consideration are: Wayne Oubre, Blake Oubre, Randal Savoy, Melvin Guidry, and Adrienne Fontenot. Mr. Guidry and Ms. Fontenot are replacing Rowdy Huval and Francis Reed, respectively. Mr. Reed is ill and no longer desires to be a director, and Mr. Huval will be the “supervising director”, as provided by the proposed ordinance.

I have requested that Roddie Matherne, owner/manager of Pelican Debris and Waste, appear at the Public Works Committee meeting to report on the status of the waste disposal program. I had two critical conferences with Pelican Waste, December 18, 2019, and January 9, 2020. On both occasions I expressed displeasure with Pelican’s response to customer complaints and that the Parish has not received the contracted franchise fee. Pelican has advised that there are an inordinate number of residents who are not paying for the service and discussed with me their plans on how to address these delinquencies. For your edification, I have demanded that in the event of any termination of services, a Pelican representative should be physically placed in our office to address all inquiries regarding same. Since my last meeting with Pelican on January 9, 2020, it is my understanding that the original number of delinquent accounts was grossly overstated by Pelican (as I suspected) and positive steps have now been implemented by Pelican relative to: 1)arriving at a reliable estimate of the number of delinquent accounts; and 2)develop a responsive process for consumer complaints and questions. In any case, I submit that a personal appearance by Pelican is critical for both the Council and general public-in short, let’s hear it straight from the source. OF IMPORT IS THE FACT THAT ON JANUARY 16, 2019, I RECEIVED OUR FRANCHISE FEE THAT WAS DUE.

Work has commenced on the Four Mile Bayou Road Bridge Project. I have requested a construction schedule from the engineer so that the Stephensville community will has some idea of when the project will be completed. Upon receipt of the schedule, I will publish it and personally advise several residents of the area who have requested same. This is a complex project and presents a great challenge relative to keeping the roadway opened while the bridges are reconstructed. Notice to Proceed was issued on January 2, 2020, with a construction time of 210 days.

The following is a summary of my prior reports on this project:
I remind you that bids on the Bayou Estates Flood Wall Project were opened on November 5, 2019, and that only one bid was submitted despite the fact that several contractors secured the plans for the project and twelve potential bidders attended the mandatory bid conference several weeks prior to bid opening. The bid which was received was $9.4 million, almost twice the amount budgeted and available for this project. This was shocking, and disappointing, to say the least.

Contractors who have been contacted have articulated various and sundry reasons why they chose not to bid. Mo Saleh, our engineer for the project, has opined that based upon his discourse with several contractors, the many different construction fields embraced by the project rendered it too complex for one contractor. Hence, he will be rebidding the project in four separate “packages.” He postulates that this will encourage additional contractors to submit bids in amounts far less than the $9.4 million bid. In all candor, I am not optimistic. However, we absolutely must rebid the project as soon as possible. The current schedule calls for rebidding in December with a bid opening in January and hopefully a contract award shortly thereafter.

Thus, at the December 5, 2019, meeting, I will ask that you formally reject the bid presented and confirm/affirm the decision to rebid. If the second round of bids are over the budget, then a re-assessment of this decade old project will be necessary. Regrettably, the first step in the process may be the termination of Mr. Saleh’s services and a total evaluation of the project by another engineer. The problem, however, will be whether there will be sufficient time to commence the project before the sunset period for the mitigation proceeds being used to fund the project. I hope that the product of this second round of bids belies my uneasiness.

The separate bid packages have been prepared and we are currently awaiting approval from CDBG for approval to bid separately. FEMA has already approved this process. According to my conference with him on Friday, December 13, 2019, the engineer is optimistic that the bidding will be completed by the end of January, 2020, and continues to opine that the total of the bids will be “close to” if not within the budget.
I have been informed that CDBG has approved verbally bidding the project separately; however, we will not proceed until WRITTEN approval is received. Mo Saleh still maintains that the bidding process will commence by the end of this month.

During the last several months, working closely with our Directors, we have undertaken numerous reorganizational steps. At least four employees who have departed Parish Government have not been replaced. Additionally, we have reassigned personnel and duties in the planning and zoning/permit department. Furthermore, we have retained the services of an experienced human resource employee who serves as our personnel officer (Kim Duplechain). She has proven to be invaluable and brings a wealth of experience in the administration of personnel benefits. Soon, you will see changes in the operation of our water plant which every day is becoming more and more burdensome. Also, many of you are aware that we will be retaining the services of Ronald Solarie who is retiring from law enforcement. Mr. Solarie has substantial experience with working with the public and will assume the responsibilities of handling all servitudes for Public Works. He will be expected to work closely with each Council member in those matters and others. Calder Hebert is finalizing a specific description of his job duties which will be circulated among you upon completion.

Several months ago, I received a comprehensive analysis of our current Policy Manual which was prepared by Cliff Lacour with the firm of NeunerPate. As such, the manual will soon be reviewed SECTION BY SECTION by myself, our Director of Administration, and personnel officer. We will address with extraordinary attention every area including particularly (though not exclusively) sections regarding the use of parish issued electronic devices (computers, cell phones, etc), social media, overtime, and new designations of part-time employees. Another significant area being researched is how to handle supplemental healthcare for medicare eligible retirees without compromise to coverage. In this connection, we will carefully develop a revised, pragmatic definition of “retiree”. I hope to finalize this endeavor by mid-summer.