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Helena Williams, with MLK Day 2020 Project, rolls a discarded tire to the trash pile, on Sunday, during the organizations neighborhood painting and trash cleanup at an empty lot on Chippewa St. and Plank road.

Saying she's fed up with political and bureaucratic dysfunction, a local contractor has pulled out of a deal with East Baton Rouge Parish to operate a proposed tire-shredding facility.

That means a $605,000 grant is likely lost, and the city will have to pay if it wants to process the thousands of abandoned tires dumped illegally in the city's poorest neighborhoods, instead of having its own equipment to do so. 

The grant, awarded to Baton Rouge in 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was part of a first-of-its-kind pilot program to tamp down on the region's deadly mosquito population, which breeds in pools of stagnant water that collect in abandoned tires. 

After years of political wrangling, it appeared the project was finally on its way to fruition. A local contractor, Diane Baum, had agreed to cover the expenses of operating the site in return for the shredded end-product, which she planned to mold into silt fences for construction, among other uses.

Baum even agreed to purchase property to house the grant-funded tire shredder — and lease it to the city-parish for $1 — after it became clear that an agreeable municipally-owned site did not exist.

But ultimately, a site was never approved by the Metro Council and the Mayor's Office missed a Sept. 1 deadline to purchase the shredder. 

Baum decided she'd had enough. On Sept. 4, she put in notice that she was pulling out of the agreement with the city, calling the local political process "dysfunctional." Over time, she said, the "carrot on a stick" of incentives from the city-parish felt more "like poo in a bag."

"I felt like, in the end, the city-parish was very incompetent in following through on some very simple things," Baum said. 

Baum said she's moving forward on the project on her own and will purchase a tire shredder without the assistance of the city-parish. She plans to be "community minded" — but now she's under no obligation to take tires from the city-parish for free. 

"The city is really the one that loses out here, not me," Baum said.

The grant, which is being administered by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, was originally set to lapse in the spring. But, with the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the deadline was extended to September. 

Mark Armstrong, a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office, said the city-parish didn't want to commit the funds to purchase a shredder without first receiving a commitment from the state that the award was still available. That reassurance never came. 

Aly Neel, a spokesperson for LDH, said the department is reviewing the implications of the missed deadline and determining next steps. 

Baton Rouge currently has few options for the disposal of tires, which are often dumped hundreds at a time in the city's poorest communities. The landfill can't process them, and a contract with Colt Industries to ship them out at $500 a truckload can barely keep up.

The tire shredder initiative was initially spearheaded on the Metro Council by Matt Watson, a councilman who is now running for mayor-president. He says that members of Mayor Sharon Weston Broome's administration should be "ashamed" of themselves for letting the federal grant slip through their fingers. 

"We could've done something that is positive to remove blight and increase public safety, and yet, petty politics and selfishness has caused us to lose this opportunity," Watson said. 

Armstrong countered that the project was always a council matter and said the mayor's office "hasn't done anything to obstruct that process."

Until recently, the project rarely seemed like a sure bet. For months, it faced headwinds on the Metro Council from Chauna Banks, a councilwoman who protested a plan to place the shredder in her predominantly Black, low-income district. After another location was identified near Baker, residents in a nearby neighborhood successfully quashed its relocation

Baum said she's closing soon on property, located at 100 Springfield Road, to house her new private tire shredding facility. She said she plans to partner with Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control so they can study the impact of eliminating abandoned tires on mosquito populations. 


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater