For months, the West Bank’s flood protection authority has been holding forums and meetings with voters, preaching a seemingly noncontroversial message about the millage proposal that will go before West Jefferson voters on Nov. 21: Flood protection is essential, and a newly beefed-up system needs a dedicated revenue source to keep it in top form.
But with the election days away, a critique of the agency and its plan to double the revenue it collects from West Jefferson property owners is gaining momentum. The critics question the authority’s administrative spending and whether enough has been done to get the federal government to help foot the bill.
The criticism started Tuesday when state Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, wrote to the South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West on behalf of the Jefferson Voters Federation to question sharp increases over the past three years in the district’s salaries, benefits and insurance costs, along with its spending on technology and legal costs. Connick also asked why maintenance work on levees and other assets is done in-house rather than put out for bid.
Then Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts took to his Facebook page Thursday and said he would vote against the 5.5-mill increase, which would add to the 5.03 mills West Jefferson property owners already pay for flood protection.
Roberts, who won re-election last month, said federal dollars “should provide levee districts with the resources they need to get the job done without additional burdens placed on Jefferson Parish property owners. For this reason, I will be voting ‘no’ for this new property tax proposal. Locals should not be called upon to fund obligations where resources already exist.”
Connick said Friday he has asked U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s office whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which spent the past seven years adding floodgates and pumping stations and building up the system’s levees, has been sufficiently pressed to contribute to the system’s ongoing maintenance and operational costs, including three “lifts” of the levees planned for coming decades to counteract subsidence.
“The presentation the (SLFPA-W) is making is all fine and good, but it doesn’t give the total picture of where the spending is going,” said Connick, who has requested a list of salaries for the 53-employee agency. “The public has a right to know.”
Flood Protection Authority President Susan Maclay said the agency’s one-person accounting department will put the information together by Monday.
“Most of our current operating budget is directly used for, or in direct support of, hurricane protection,” she said, calling the authority a “superb steward of the public’s trust.”
She said increases in the budget are in line with the requirements of the improved and more complex system, and making sure management and flood-protection staff are qualified and don’t leave for other jobs.
Asked about getting more federal dollars, Maclay said that can take decades, noting that the West Bank part of the flood protection system was first authorized after Hurricane Betsy but wasn’t funded and completed until after Hurricane Katrina four decades later.
“After serious due diligence, SLFPA-W’s board came to the conclusion that far too much was at stake to hope that the U.S. Congress would get around to appropriating the funds,” she wrote. “I know we all agree that we cannot gamble with people’s lives and property, and waiting on Congress is truly a gamble.”
Connick said he’s holding back on reaching any conclusions until he gets the information he’s requested, but he said a 30-year millage is a lot to ask without a thorough examination of how the authority spends the money it already has.
If voters reject the millage, he said, there will be an opportunity for the SLFPA-W to come back and make another pitch.
“Eventually, it’s going to pass,” he said. “It’s going to pass now or in the future. But we’ve got to make sure it’s done the right way and that the organization is as transparent as possible so we don’t repeat the sins of the past.”
Connick said he views the proposed 6.35-mill tax renewal in Algiers, also on the Nov. 21 ballot, as a completely separate issue from the proposed increase in Jefferson. He said he supports renewing the Algiers tax.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.