With the contract signed and crews mobilizing within two weeks, Livingston Parish’s road overlay program continues to draw criticism for the roads that made the work list.
Residents who previously fought for tougher road standards in the parish have said some of the roads on the Parish Council’s priority list shouldn’t be priorities at all. And a Denham Springs attorney is questioning whether the list meets the legal requirements of the state Parish Transportation Fund, which finances part of Livingston’s road work program.
“The list of roads on the road contract that is about to start should be an embarrassment to all council members,” Earl Price, a Denham Springs contractor, said in an email Thursday afternoon. The email was addressed to the Parish Council clerk and copied to three council members, Denham Springs attorney Bob Morgan and Scott Jones, who helped organize a petition in 2008 to improve the parish’s road standards.
Price and Jones have been pressing council members in recent weeks for answers about the inclusion of gravel roads, like Cuba Wheat in Colyell, on the parish’s priority list.
Price and Jones contend Cuba Wheat Road was not properly accepted into the parish’s maintenance system in 2008 and should not be eligible for any of the parish’s limited road work funding. Parish legal adviser Christopher Moody advised the council in a letter Tuesday that he could not verify whether the road was properly accepted. But he suggested that if the parish maintained the road for three years, the road became public and could be included on the list at the council’s discretion.
“My advice on this issue is of course always that you must follow the State Transportation Act requirements that any work be done according to your priority list,” Moody wrote.
Morgan pressed that point Thursday, cautioning council members by email and at the council meeting that state law requires that Parish Transportation Fund money be used only for the benefit of the parish as a whole.
“There might be any number of roads on the (parish’s) final list that fail the priority test,” Morgan wrote in an email Thursday. “The council acted beyond its discretion in approving substandard, little-used and essentially private (regardless of their legal nature) roads to spend parish funds on, and should be called to task for its poor judgment in that regard.”
Parish officials have set aside $5.45 million for this year’s overlay project, with nearly $2 million of that total being state funding and the rest coming from local taxes, Finance Director Jennifer Meyers said.
Morgan contends that every road on the parish’s priority list, because the work is partially funded through the Parish Transportation Fund Act, must meet that law’s requirements for prioritizing roads.
According to a primer published by the Legislative Auditor’s Office, even locally funded road work must meet the act’s requirements if the local funds are combined with the state funds into a “single physical account without any separate accounting.”
Meyers said Friday that the state and parish road funds are held in the same bank account, but they are accounted for separately. She said parish officials have researched the issue extensively and believe they are not bound to the state act’s requirements when using parish road funds.
Morgan warned council members Thursday that they could trigger an audit finding or even be criminally liable for malfeasance if they authorized road work that fell short of state law standards.
“Each and every one of you is responsible for being sure that there’s not a road that gets on this list that comes ahead of the roads that are on the objective, prioritized list, according to the criteria that are in the statute,” Morgan said.
Councilman Delos Blackwell suggested gravel roads in rural areas of the parish ought to be prioritized ahead of some of the roads that have been overlaid. Many of the parish’s now-heavily traveled roads were once gravel, he said.
Councilman Jim Norred agreed, saying, “We’ve got to work on our infrastructure roads first, and we’re doing that. … But if they’ve been in the system for years, rightly or wrongly, they’re in the system. They’ve been paying taxes, and they deserve to have an asphalt road.”
Councilwoman Cindy Wale Franz said she believed it was part of the parish’s road engineer’s job to help the council determine which roads should be prioritized.
Engineer Gasper Chifici, of Burk-Kleinpeter Inc., said he studied all the roads on the Parish Council’s list and agreed all are in need of work. He said he had not looked at every road in the parish, however, and there may be nonprioritized roads that are worse than some on the list.
Chifici said priority judgments are somewhat arbitrary, but he believes the list is “a fairly good list.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.