Jefferson councilman calls for putting BP money aside rather than using it to fund raises _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Richard Alan Hannon -- Members of the Louisiana National Guard's 1022nd Engineer Company out of Bossier City, West Monroe and Rustin work to deploy seven miles of Tiger Dam along the beach at Grand Isle in 2010. Elton Lagasse is proposing the parish's settlement money be placed in escrow and spent on helping coastal communities, like Grand Isle, most affected by the spill rather than raises for Jefferson parish employees.

The Jefferson Parish Council is deadlocked over what to do with its windfall from the BP oil spill settlement.

Two competing proposals have emerged for how to spend the roughly $34 million in money that will be left after attorneys’ fees and money for special parish districts are taken care of.

Some council members favor giving long-delayed raises to parish workers; others say the money should go to the coastal communities hit hardest by the spill.

But on Wednesday, all that council members could agree on was putting off the decision for at least two weeks.

They deferred action on both a resolution from Councilman Elton Lagasse that would put the money in escrow for coastal areas and an ordinance from Councilman Ben Zahn that would use it to finance 5 percent raises for parish employees.

The standoff leaves parish workers in limbo.

Council members have already voted unanimously to grant Parish President John Young permission to go ahead with raises in 2016. Everyone seems to agree that parish employees deserve bigger paychecks. But so far Zahn’s is the only proposal for actually funding those raises.

The decision to punt on the issue Wednesday came after two hours of discussion, which featured pleas from the mayors of Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte, both of which took heavy damage during the 2010 oil spill.

Jean Lafitte Mayor Timothy Kerner pointed out that coastal residents have supported projects that don’t do them any direct good, including the federal levees that since Hurricane Katrina guard much of Jefferson Parish but not their neighborhoods.

Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle said tar balls were still washing up on his town’s beaches as recently as Tuesday. Fishing hauls also are still not what they were before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded five years ago, he said.

“We’re ground zero, guys,” Camardelle told the council. “Think with your heart before you make your decision. ... We are living with the oil.”

Zahn and others said additional litigation is expected to bring in millions for Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte for damage done by the spill as well as for years of work done in their area by the oil and gas industry.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said she would support using the money mostly for coastal areas, but she wants some of it to put up guardrails along open drainage canals in her district. Three people have died after driving into the canals recently.

Without providing details, Lee-Sheng said she would be working on a draft ordinance that would offer some kind of compromise between coastal towns and the rest of the parish.

The money at issue is available now because Jefferson Parish and other local government bodies sued BP after the oil spill, claiming the environmental and economic fallout from the disaster cost them tax dollars they would otherwise have collected. BP settled with Jefferson Parish and most other local agencies last month.

Camardelle on Wednesday revealed that BP offered to settle Grand Isle’s lawsuit over lost sales tax revenue for $700,000, but the town rejected it. Both Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte have so far refused to settle.

“It’s a shame what we (were) offered,” Camardelle said. “The formula was wrong.”