With a crucial millage election coming up Saturday, the West Bank’s flood protection authority has responded to criticism about its spending practices while marshaling support from a throng of organizations for its bid for higher property taxes to help maintain levees and other flood-fighting infrastructure.
The ballot measure in West Jefferson would add 5.5 mills to the 5.03 mills property owners already pay for flood protection. It does not affect Algiers.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West says it needs the money to operate and maintain the West Bank’s flood protection system, which has undergone $4.1 billion in federally funded enhancements over the past seven years. A larger, better system able to protect against a 100-year storm requires more resources to maintain, the authority says.
Still, the authority was met with questions by state Rep. Pat Connick and the Jefferson Voters Federation two weeks ago about the size of its staff and whether it could cut costs by outsourcing some of its operations, particularly grass-cutting along the levees.
The SLFPA-W issued a partial rebuttal last week, but President Susan Maclay turned over a salary list this week, reiterated that two-thirds of its operating revenue goes directly toward flood protection and said that none of its workers are employed strictly to cut grass; they handle other operations and emergency duties as well, she said.
Privatizing functions, she wrote, would “put public safety in the hands of for-profit, private contractors” and would diminish a fleet of full-time field personnel who “intimately know every inch of our system.”
Maclay said the SLFPA-W’s expenses compare favorably to other levee districts, at $82,250 per mile of levee compared with $103,906 at the SLFPA-East. She said the authority has come a long way from the days before Hurricane Katrina, when its predecessor agency was criticized for holding closed-door meetings and employing too many people. At the time, its expenses amounted to $158,000 per mile of levee, she said.
The SLFPA-W noted that the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, the Bureau of Governmental Research and the leaders of Gretna and Westwego all have endorsed the millage request.
Merritt Lane, president of Canal Barge Co. and a member of the Business Council’s Flood Protection Task Force, said residents need to be mindful of the lessons learned after Katrina.
“In New Orleans, it was really a man-made failure — the design and engineering failures and the lack of attention to proper operations and maintenance of those structures on an ongoing basis,” he said. “What we must learn from the past or be doomed to repeat is you’ve got to take care of what you’ve got.”
Connick said he remains concerned about the growth of the authority’s staff, which numbered roughly 40 two years ago and about 50 today. The SLFPA-W attributes the increase to the larger system it has to maintain. Connick said he believes adjustments could be made to outsource mowing without affecting crucial emergency and operations staff.
The SLFPA-W provided Connick with a list of salaries showing that Executive Director John Monzon makes $140,000 per year, while the average salary overall is $47,404.
At the very least, he said, the information has been made public and voters can make their choice.
Connick has not taken issue with a 6.35-mill renewal on the ballot in Algiers, which would pay for Orleans Parish’s share of the agency’s work.
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