A Marrero legislator is questioning the spending practices of the agency that oversees flood protection on the West Bank in advance of the Nov. 21 vote on its millage proposals, requesting information about recent salary and benefit increases and asking whether the agency could use a more competitive bidding process to keep costs down.
In a letter Tuesday to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, state Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, said that he and business owners from the Jefferson Voters Federation have reviewed the agency’s last few annual budgets and “all are of the opinion that salaries and benefits along with the insurance cost and outside consultants have increased beyond what they consider normal for a 53-person operation.”
The letter says that since 2013, salaries have increased by more than 30 percent and benefits by more than 50 percent. During the same time, it says, group insurance expenses have increased by 45 percent.
The authority is on target to spend $2.6 million on salaries during the fiscal year ending June 30, compared with $1.9 million the year before, the letter says. Benefits are projected at $1.9 million.
Connick said he and others are concerned that professional services, including outside attorneys, consume nearly 15 percent of the budget, while only 3 percent goes toward levee repairs and supplies.
Members of the Jefferson Voters Federation, he said, “would also like to know why some of these expenses cannot be reduced. For example, can we save money by putting the grass-cutting operation out for competitive bid?”
The SLFPA-W has for months been promoting the need for millage renewals in Algiers and West Jefferson.
In West Jefferson, voters are being asked to approve an additional 5.5 mills on top of the 5.03-mill tax that now brings in $5.1 million a year for the West Jefferson Levee District.
Voters in Algiers are being asked to renew the Algiers Levee District’s 6.35-mill special maintenance millage that expires at the end of the year; that renewal would keep total flood protection-related taxes in Algiers unchanged at 12.53 mills.
Connick wrote the letter following one of the authority’s informational meetings about the millage proposals, and he said the residents he spoke with are not against flood protection.
He said the authority has already turned over some information on its staffing and has promised to provide more in the coming days.
“We want levee protection, and we don’t mind paying for levee protection,” Connick said. “We just don’t want this organization to have an unlimited source of money and to (be) another Crescent City Connection, where everybody is getting wealthy and nothing is getting done.”
Connick was a vocal critic of the former Crescent City Connection Division of the state Department of Transportation and how it spent the money collected from bridge tolls. The division was the subject of audits that found it lacked proper financial controls. In 2011, it was found to have improperly spent money collected from CCC tolls on a bridge project in Lafourche Parish.
“We want accountability from the start,” Connick said, “not a jobs program.”
The SLFPA-W’s regional director, John Monzon, said Wednesday he is working with the authority’s accountant and business office to address the questions raised by Connick and should have the answers by early next week.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.