Highlights from the Parish President’s Report of the St. Martin Parish Council Committee Meetings of November 17, 2020
HURRICANE DELTA-FEDERAL DECLARATION
On Monday, November 9, 2020, I received notification that St. Martin Parish had been approved for a Major Disaster Declaration authorizing Public Assistance funding for Category A (Debris Removal) and Category B (Emergency Protective Measures), all as regards Hurricane Delta. Consequently, the expenses incurred in all of our pre-storm preparations will be reimbursed at the rate of 75%. Moreover, the cost of debris removal will likewise be reimbursed on a 75%-25% basis.
Additionally, the Parish was designated for Individual Assistance in connection with Hurricane Delta. Thus, homeowners and renters may now apply for federal disaster assistance for uninsured and underinsured damages and losses resulting from the storm event. THE DEADLINE TO REGISTER IS DECEMBER 16, 2020. To register, one can apply at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or TTY 1-800-462-7585.
Finally, on November 13, 2020, St. Martin Parish was approved for DSNAP (Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Information about the program can be found at www.dcfs.la.gov/SNAPstorms.
Also, a Drive thru Disaster Relief Center is scheduled to open in Breaux Bridge at Parc Hardy on November 19, 2020. It will be open Monday through Friday from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. and on Saturday from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.
STORM DEBRIS COLLECTION
As a threshold matter, I remind you of these remarks from my October report regarding storm debris generated by Hurricane Delta:
The impotence Hurricane Delta exhibited in rainfall was more than compensated for by the intensity of its sustained wind and gusts. As you are well aware, the upper portion of our Parish sustained significance damage with respect to fallen trees and related vegetative debris. Additionally, homes sustained significant and widespread roof damage. The latter is still being assessed, and therefore at this time I have no reliable and final statistic on this element of damage. However, one need only to casually observe the number of “blue” tarps to grasp the magnitude of these damages. Additionally, 98% of the Parish experienced power outages; however, within two days most of Parish had power restored.
With respect to storm debris, even before the storm, we had contacted our contractors under our Pre-Positioned Debris Removal program. Saturday morning, those contractors, Ceres Environmental Services and Tetra Tech, Inc., were assessing the amount of the debris generated by the storm. By Monday, we had received notification that there was between 35,000 to 40,000 cubic yards of debris associated with the storm, 95% of which emanates from trees. It was an obvious conclusion that our Public Works Department did not have the resources to collect and dispose of such a massive volume of storm debris. You will recall that we addressed all such debris remediation in-house after Hurricane Laura.
Consequently, the contracts under our Pre-Positioned Debris Removal Program were activated and formal Notices to Proceed signed. The total costs associated with the removal and monitoring is estimated at $849,515.63, itemized as follows:
Debris Removal: $648,112.50
Tipping Fees: $ 39,375.00
Monitoring Costs: $162,028.13
These costs are reimbursable from FEMA at the rate of 75% assuming St. Martin Parish qualifies for Category A expenses. After speaking personally with FEMA representatives, there is little question that we will meet the necessary thresholds for reimbursement. Thus, I felt that it would be imprudent to wait for a formal Category A declaration before proceeding with debris removal. Indeed, with or without FEMA, we must clean-up the Parish and any unnecessary delay in the process would simply be unjustified. Note that FEMA requires the monitoring component in order to receive assistance.
On October 19, 2020, the collection of storm debris commenced with Ceres Environmental collecting the debris and Tetra Tech serving as the monitoring firm. As of Saturday afternoon, 28,258.90 cubic yards of debris had been collected. This represents 70.64% of the total estimated debris. It is anticipated that all debris will be collected by the end of Thanksgiving Week.
Finally, as I advised previously in this report, St. Martin Parish has received Category A FEMA Declaration meaning we will be entitled to reimbursement of 75% of the cost of the debris collection.
It is important to note that FEMA reimbursement is neither a quick or easy task to accomplish. Voluminous documents and records must be submitted within often unreasonable deadlines. Then, several conferences must be entertained with not only FEMA representatives, but also with individuals from DEQ and other such federal regulatory agencies. Finally, the reimbursement is just that: REIMBURSEMENT. Parish funds must first be expended, not just incurred. In short, the process is lengthy and in my opinion unnecessarily burdensome and frequently unreasonable.
As you will recall, on March 27, 2020, President Trump signed the CARES Act which is a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill adopted in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over $300 billion were directed to state and local government to offset expenses incurred in connection with mitigation measures. My initial review of this legislation, which is quite voluminous, convinced me that the amount set aside for state and local governments was weighted in favor of larger jurisdictions. As time has gone by, nothing has transpired to discount or otherwise influence my position in that regard.
In any case, we sought reimbursement for numerous expenses ranging from the cost of security for inmates who contracted COVID-19 to the costs of the construction of plexiglass barriers at various Parish buildings. Last week, we learned that the Parish will receive $8,145.15. Our claim for additional security and supplies for masks, sanitizers, and similar supplies was allowed; however, our claims for the cost/expense of permanent barriers which we constructed pursuant to CDC guidelines were disallowed.
We will continue to vet any and all stimulus programs designed to aid local government because of the pandemic. Indeed, reimbursement simply represents a return of the tax dollars our constituents have already paid.
MANDATORY TRAINING IN ETHICS AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT
All public employees and elected officials in Louisiana are required to receive one hour of ethics training per year. Moreover, La. R.S. 42:341, et seq., which was enacted in the 2018, similarly mandates one hour of sexual harassment training annually for public employees and elected officials. I have scheduled for all St. Martin Parish Government employees live presentations on both topics for Tuesday, December 8, 2020. The lessons will be in two sessions: 8:00 A.M.-11:00 A.M. in the council chambers, and from 12:30 P.M.-3:30 P.M. at the Fire Service Training Center.
The presenter will be David Stanford who conducted the classes last year. His presentation was a resounding success and covered numerous practical scenarios. A live presentation is much more effective and educational than the online courses which we have conducted in the past. The personal interaction among Mr. Stanford and the audience is particularly energetic and trenchant.
Of course, Council members are invited to attend. If you elect to do so, please contact my office so that we can make the necessary arrangements to insure compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
As a consequence of the annual DOTD inspections, only one of our bridges was closed. That structure was the Pontoon Bridge, the closure of which was not unexpected. Indeed, on February 6, 2020, Huval & Associates lamented about the condition of the bridge and opined that it would most likely have issues with the October DOTD inspections. Nonetheless, we were able to temporarily repair the bridge, and it was re-opened upon DOTD approval on November 9, 2020. Bridge plates were replaced at a cost of $16,900.00.
The Pontoon Bridge replacement project continues to progress. We anticipate that construction will commence in late Spring of 2021 at a cost of $9.5 million. Of course, once the replacement project starts, it will be necessary to close access for several months. The new bridge will be a two-lane swing span structure. I remind you of these remarks from my February report:
On February 6, 2020, I met with the engineers for this project and reviewed the status thereof. The cost to replace the bridge at a different location would introduce additional costs of 1.5 to 2 million dollars. Moreover, numerous permitting issues would be introduced as well as the necessity of building new roads on the levee. Obviously, our budget for the project will not accommodate this option of an offset construction.
We also discussed the wisdom of constructing a one lane v. two lane structure. The former presented several safety concerns because of the height of the new bridge. As such, it was the engineers’ recommendation that the new bridge be a two-lane swing span structure. The total cost, including engineering fees and a 10% contingency, would be $9,491,335.00. Our available funds for this project are $9,480,212.00. Therefore, I requested that the engineers proceed with the design of a two-lane swing span bridge at the current location. It is anticipated that the construction will commence in the Spring of 2021 and take approximately 12 months to complete.
Beginning in 2021, I will have representatives from our various departments/divisions appear at committee meetings to present an overview of their work. I believe it is important for the public to understand the vast array of services for which Parish Government is responsible. I am in the process of developing a schedule. Of course, there will not be multiple presentations at one meeting.
HOME ELEVATION PROGRAM
On November 5, 2020, Parish Government sponsored a presentation on the FEMA program for home elevation grant funding. Representatives from Quality Engineering were present to explain the parameters of the program and to address questions of those in attendance. Any property owner whose property appears on the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP’S) Repetitive/Severe Repetitive Loss list was informed of the meeting by mail. If anyone has any questions about the program and were unable to attend the November 5th outreach presentation, they can contact Maurice G. Sonnier or Nancy Banales with Quality Engineering at 225-698-1600 or [email protected]
Parish Government’s sales tax collections continue to remain strong despite the closures/restrictions imposed on businesses as a consequence of COVID-19. Note that sales tax collections for October were:
Sales Tax District #1: $259,591.50 compared to $246,721.64 in Oct. 2019
Sales Tax District #2: $92,915.28 compared to $110,627.69 in Oct. 2019
Collections in Sales Tax District #1 have averaged $254,008.51 per month in 2020 while the monthly average in 2019 was $252,600.54. The monthly average in Sales Tax District #2 thus far this year is $98,942.71 compared to a monthly average in 2019 of 107,926.53.
The hotel/motel tax collections have averaged $23,770.23 in 2020 compared to a monthly average of $23,458.64 in 2019. Last month, the Parish received $45,493.31 compared to $19,406.61 in October 2019.
The federal stimulus money obviously has shielded the sales tax collections up to this point. Moreover, one can validly postulate that the storms have also positively impacted both sales tax collections and the hotel/motel collections up this point in 2020.
We would be remiss to believe that the economic issues associated with the pandemic and downturn in the oil and gas industry will not be injurious to our revenue stream since unemployment federal stimulus is no longer available. In any case, the administration will continue to closely monitor our tax revenue.
LGAP AND CWEF FUNDS
On August 4, 2020, you approved Resolution Number 059-RS relative to applying for grants from the Louisiana Government Assistance Program (LGAP) and Community Water Enrichment Fund (CWEF). We have processed the necessary documents to insure our entitlement to the proceeds from those programs. However, the available funds have been substantially reduced. This year, the funding available for all local units in the Parish will be $58,500 for LGAP compared to $165,700 last year. CWEF funding will be $64,500 for the entire Parish compared to $143,000 in FY 2019-2020. The Parish’s share will be $13,000 for LGAP and $18,500 for CWEF for 2021.
On August 17, 2020, the drawdown of Henderson Lake commenced. Unfortunately, Hurricanes Laura, Marco, Sally, Delta, and Eta prevented a successful drawdown. This was supposed to be the last year for the drawdown according to the permit which we received in 2014 from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. During the years since the permit was granted, we have experienced only limited success. The permit, issued on August 15, 2014, sets forth sixteen arduous conditions. As alluded to previously, the accepted/approved/permitted plan calls for five (5) separate, though not consecutive, years of summer/fall drawdowns, commencing in 2014.
According to Brac Salyers, the chief biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the purpose of the drawdown is to control severe problems with vegetation, especially Hydrilla, Water Hyacinth, and Giant Salvinia. These growths rob the water of valuable, essential nutrients which support fisheries. Additionally, the aforementioned vegetation impedes navigation. Furthermore, a successful drawdown allows for the compaction of the lake bed, thus aiding in the reproduction of fisheries. Finally, the lowering of the lake may aid with flood prevention in the event of a major storm or rain event.
The operational plan which the Parish developed, working with Mr. Salyers, calls for the reduction of the water level by 2 to 4 inches per day until we realize a water level of 6 feet. The level at the lake is monitored numerous times every day during the drawdown by both the LDWF and our office with daily reports being provided to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, all in accordance with the 2014 permit.
Consequently, we were again extremely disappointed that the drawdown could not be effective and the vegetation issues in the lake addressed, especially in view of the fact that this was the last year of the permit. However, the Corps of Engineering has advised our office that the permit has been renewed IN PERPETUITY. No time extensions or reissuances in the future will be necessary. Thus, we are hopeful that in 2021 we will at long last have success in these mitigation measures.
Now for the “not so encouraging news.” We are not certain that funds will be available from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to finance to treatment of the vegetation. Of course, we will address this matter in the summer of 2021.
In an effort to more effectively address “repeat” nuisance violations, we have taken a more aggressive step with such habitual offenders. Specifically, with major violators, the Parish is instituting litigation. Five suits have to date been filed seeking mandatory injunctions (orders from the Court that the offending conditions be remediated) and damages. Our prior efforts, especially as regarding dilapidated structures and the accumulation of “junk,” have not produced positive results. The hearing officer approach also proved to nonproductive. Hence, a more aggressive approach was deemed necessary in an effort to successfully address the challenges imposed by nuisance properties. We will keep you apprised of our progress in this regard. I note that no District is immune from this problem. Also, blighted and neglected properties are issues for all local government in the region.
2020 ROAD IMPROVEMENT PROJECT
After the last regular meeting, several of you expressed very legitimate, and insightful, observations about the final list of roads for the upcoming road projects. As a result of such concerns, our Director of Public Works, Kasey Courville, has or will again be addressing the final road list with each of you to ensure that the work to be performed will be economically and practically feasible. We remain hopeful that the project can and will be ready for bids in December and construction will commence in late January of 2021.
The engineer for the project, Phil Parker of Duplantis Design Group (DDG), has accepted a position with CPRA and his last day with DDG was Friday, November 13, 2020. However, the engineers assuming his role are familiar with the project and Mr. Parker’s departure will not be an impediment to this project. However, he will most definitely be sorely missed, and I wish him the very best in his new career.
LAKE MARTIN LITIGATION
As has been reported, the Louisiana Supreme Court denied the Parish’s request for writs (request to entertain a review of the Third Circuit’s adverse decision) in the Champagne litigation. Obviously, there were legitimate legal issues implicated by the case and all parties were afforded the opportunity to present arguments on the competing questions of law. While most of us strongly believe that a vested right cannot arise by virtue of a violation of a legislative (Parish Council) act, despite an administrative mistaken or incorrect application thereof, the majority of the judges who heard the case were of a contrary opinion UNDER THE SPECIFIC FACTS of this situation.
There is a silver lining, however. The Third Circuit DID NOT find that our zoning ordinance was an improper exercise of the right of local government to regulate land use. The challenge to our zoning ordinance was of grave concern to me. Also, the Court did not negatively comment upon the value of the Public Trust Doctrine enunciated in Article IX of the La. Constitution and local government’s right, and indeed obligation, to protect natural habitats such as Lake Martin.
I am hopeful that the issue with the public use of, and access to, Lake Martin will soon be resolved. This matter necessarily entails the active involvement of the La. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries since Lake Martin falls under that agency’s exclusive jurisdiction.