St. Helena Parish recently spent $4.8 million to improve its much-maligned roads, but some parish leaders say they're unhappy with the quality of the work.
It's part of a long-running tension over the quality of infrastructure in the rural parish.
The parish hired Barriere Construction to perform a slew of road rehabilitation projects in 2020. Now, that work is drawing to a close: The parish police jury voted on Oct. 29 to pay $713,000 in past-due invoices to the company, one of the final payments it owed the firm.
Debate between jury members about whether to pay those invoices showed mixed feelings over the project's results.
Some jurors aren’t pleased with the quality of the newly-paved roads and say the parish should have waited longer for the company to return and fix problematic spots before handing over that $713,000. While that's a fraction of the overall project, it is a significant chunk of cash for the rural, mostly working-class parish with a depleted tax base.
“The asphalt on some of these roads is crumbling up like crackers,” said Willie Morgan, a police juror for the parish’s third district. “We know we got to pay the bill, but we should want our work done right, and then you pay ‘em.”
Morgan was at his day job during the Oct. 29 meeting, which was called during the workday to address the issue specifically, so he couldn’t share that feedback before the board, he said. Decisions about a controversial project involving so large a sum of money should have waited, he argued, until Tuesday’s regularly-scheduled police jury meeting.
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Police jury president Frank E. Johnson explained that the payments approved Oct. 29 were sums the parish was withholding while Professional Engineering Consultants — a Baton Rouge firm the parish contracted to oversee Barriere’s work — went back to perform checks on sections of newly-paved roads where officials noted problems.
The panel’s president acknowledged shortfalls with some sections of road paved under the contract. But Johnson felt satisfied with PEC’s checks and thought it was time to pay the withheld balance, he told The Advocate.
Three other police jurors agreed, voting in the special meeting to approve the payments.
“They had made a good-faith effort to finish the checklist,” Johnson said. “When you owe somebody, you have to pay them.”
Morgan isn’t the only official to question the quality of some newly-laid roads, though.
Greensburg-area police juryman Jeremy Williams said that he’s mostly satisfied with the project’s results around the town. But bits of shoulder have crumbled and caved in in places, he said. And former longtime fifth district police juror Major Coleman said that potholes appeared in Leonard Chapel Road, a small thoroughfare near the St. Helena-Tangipahoa Parish line, “right after they finished the project.”
Barriere did, however, return to fix those potholes in the past two weeks, current fifth district police juror Ryan Byrd said Thursday.
Reached by phone Thursday, St. Helena Public Works superintendent Al Franklin declined to comment on results of the roads project and referred questions to the police jurors.
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Local officials say the shortfalls of the project should be blamed less on Barriere construction’s work and more on shoddy oversight by PEC. That’s part of the reason why St. Helena Emergency Operations Director Roderick Matthews wants the parish to hire its own engineer for future projects.
“There were areas where we observed problems with the road rehab plan,” Matthews said. “Part of my reasoning for requesting a parish engineer was because I felt that (PEC) was more partnered with the contractor’s interests than with (the parish’s).”
Email and phone messages left with PEC and Barriere’s corporate offices Thursday were not immediately returned.
Morgan, meanwhile, took issue with the hastily-called Oct. 29 special meeting in which the $713,000 spending decision was made. Reporters and residents weren’t properly notified of the meeting, he said.
That spending decision follows a spat between Johnson and the owner of a gravel pit in the president’s district over damage to a road included in the Barriere contract. Johnson has blamed gravel trucks for mangling the newly-laid asphalt.
The decision to shell out the most recent payments was unrelated to that dispute, Johnson said.