A day after one prominent Jefferson Parish business group said it was too early to commit money from the BP oil spill settlement to any specific purpose, another on Tuesday said it was OK for some of the money to benefit parish government employees, though not in the form of raises.
In a letter to Parish Council members, the Jefferson Business Council suggested placing almost $2.5 million into a relief fund benefiting parish employees who were most affected by the loss of sales tax revenue in Jefferson following the 2010 oil spill.
Payments from the relief fund would be one-time reimbursements that would “have no effect on the future pension obligations of the parish nor create a recurring expense,” read the letter signed by Jefferson Business Council Chairman Robert Weinmann and Executive Director Tony Ligi.
Weinmann and Ligi’s letter followed a statement Monday by the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce urging the Parish Council to place the one-time windfall from BP in reserve. They suggested crafting a comprehensive spending plan that prioritized coastal restoration, flood protection, tourism, fisheries and economic development initiatives — or paying off existing debt.
But the letter from Weinmann and Ligi noted that the settlement money was meant to compensate the parish for sales tax revenue lost after the oil spill — not for damage done to the wetlands or Gulf Coast. Other pending lawsuits will provide billions for spill-related repairs to the coast and marshlands once they are resolved, said Weinmann and Ligi, echoing a position held by those in support of using BP settlement funds on non-environmental purposes.
Neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the Business Council specifically mentioned any individual proposed piece of parish legislation. But the Business Council’s letter more closely aligns with a proposal by Parish Councilman Ben Zahn, and the Chamber of Commerce’s statement appears to be more sympathetic to a competing proposal from Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse.
Zahn is proposing to use a portion of the BP money to fund 5 percent “cost of living” raises for parish employees. Lagasse is calling to put the BP settlement in an escrow account until a spending plan is hammered out, and he’s gone on the record about his wishes to use as much of that money as possible on coastal communities affected by the spill.
Lagasse supports giving cost of living pay raises to parish employees. He recently got a resolution passed asking the Parish President’s office to give employees the 5 percent raises in 2016.
The Business Council letter said carrying out that resolution depends on whether the raises could be budgeted for without affecting the parish’s general fund so much that it would hurt the parish’s bond rating.
But “there is not sufficient information available to justify such a conclusion based on conversations with the Director of the ... Parish Department of Finance,” the Business Council’s letter said of Lagasse’s resolution.
In a statement Tuesday, Zahn said, “I was proud to read the Jefferson Business Council’s statement regarding the the distribution of the BP sales tax mitigation. We now have an independent body of business professionals that actually understand the specifics of this suit, its intent and purpose. We appreciate their input into the process, and hope that my colleagues acknowledge their professional opinions.”
Lagasse did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Parish Council was scheduled to consider action on both Zahn’s and Lagasse’s proposal at a meeting Wednesday. However, Zahn’s item is slated to be deferred.
As is true for all council meeting agenda items, it’s possible Lagasse’s proposal is also deferred Wednesday. Either way, it is expected that at least a general discussion about what to do with the BP settlement money will occur.
Government bodies including Jefferson Parish sued BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing oil spill, claiming the environmental and economic fallout cost them revenue. BP settled with Jefferson Parish and various other government bodies last month.
Once attorneys’ fees are paid and special parish districts providing various services get some of the money, the parish will have about $34.7 million of the BP money left.