Advocate staff editorial

When you get a windfall, do you blow it on dinner or do you fix leaky pipes and the hole in the roof? The answer tells a lot about the priorities of the spender. The Jefferson Parish Council has failed that test in deciding how to spend proceeds of a lucrative settlement from the BP oil leak, and the council’s behavior should serve as a cautionary example for communities throughout south Louisiana that are deciding how to use BP settlement money. A better model seems to be the one embraced by New Orleans officials, who are trying to leverage the city’s BP money for more comprehensive solutions to coastal challenges.

The Jefferson council, like its counterpart in New Orleans, received about $35 million in cash from a legal settlement arising from the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Jefferson council members voted unanimously to dedicate $15 million to coastal restoration of flood protection projects, but most of the money would be split among four council districts.

The vote was a compromise reached after about four months of debate on whether to give all the money to the districts that were hit the hardest by the 2010 oil spill or to spend it on projects throughout the parish and pay raises for government employees. The good news is that the council was persuaded not to use the money for pay raises or other recurring expenses. One-time money should not be used that way.

The resolution the council eventually approved was drafted by Councilman Ricky Templet, whose district includes the coastal communities of Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte. It calls for the parish to direct $5 million to each of the council’s five districts and $10 million to fighting coastal erosion and flooding.

The resolution specifies that Templet will dedicate his district’s $5 million to erosion and flooding projects, bringing the total for those purposes to $15 million, and that all of that money will be spent in the two districts closest to the Gulf of Mexico.

Templet said the $15 million will be used to pursue at least $45 million more in matching funds from state coastal and flood protection authorities. Millions more could be available from the federal government, he said.

Templet’s leadership on this issue is welcome, but the fact is that four out of five council districts are going to get some pork-barrel spending out of the “compromise.”

Contrast that with the administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the New Orleans City Council.

Members voted to spend their entire BP settlement as part of a city application through the National Disaster Resiliency Competition, a federal grant program that will award a total of $1 billion to communities across the country that are working to improve their ability to respond to disasters. If the city’s effort is successful, as much as $532 million in projects that are part of the disaster resiliency plan could be funded through the federal grants and other sources.

It’s not a sure thing, but it’s a case of targeting a windfall on real needs related to the original source of the funds, and avoiding the pork-barreling reminiscent of a backwoods police jury.