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Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks, left, and Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Mark Harrell talk about the barges equipped with a knuckle booms and grapplers to pick downed trees out of the waterways, at the public boat launch on the Tickfaw River at the Rome Ferry Bridge south of Springfield, Tuesday, May 15, 2018.

Livingston Parish officials are facing questions over how they are spending $50 million in federal funding appropriated for waterway cleanup after the August 2016 flood.

An attorney working for a Livingston-area company sent a letter to the Parish Council earlier this month complaining about the government's decision not to issue competitive bids for this project, relying instead on the standby debris removal contract it activates after disasters. The attorney did not name the company in the letter and would not disclose the name when asked.  

Livingston officials are defending their decision, saying the existing contractor, Ceres Environmental Services, has performed excellent work at competitive prices, and the parish had no need for a new contract for what is disaster-related work.

The controversy relates to funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated to the parish in March. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, originally secured the money to buy out homeowners in a flood-prone subdivision in lower Livingston Parish. After some residents backed out, killing the project, Graves had the money reallocated for the waterway cleanup efforts, said Mark Harrell, director of Livingston Parish's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The money is prescribed for cleaning out rivers, canals and streams that are clogged from debris that drifted in during the catastrophic flood, according to Harrell. Since spring, parish officials have been assembling a list of waterways in need of cleaning, but no work has begun.  

Harrell said he plans to hire Minnesota-based Ceres to clean the waterways. The parish has a standing contract with the firm for "post-disaster debris collection, procession and disposal." The contract exists so that the parish has a someone on hand in case a disaster hits the region, and debris needs to be cleared from roadways and homes. 

The one-year, non-exclusive agreement was signed April 4, 2016 with two one-year renewals. It will expire in April 2019, and Harrell said he plans to start advertising for a new contract within the next month.

The letter from attorney John Murrill of Taylor, Porter Brooks & Phillips, LLC, challenging the parish's plans says using the Ceres contract for the waterways is at least a stretch, because the contract language itself talks primarily about dry-land, roadside services. The contract contains no specifications for how waterway cleanup work should be done, the letter notes.

"To undertake a parish-wide cleanup of waterways using the existing Ceres contract is to deprive the parish and its citizens of the potential for significant savings and efficiencies," the letter says.

The letter also claims that since the contract with Ceres will likely run out part way through the project, it will result in a "costly, mid-stream halt in work." 

In an interview, Murrill declined to name the company he's representing, saying it is a local business and fears losing out on future contracts with Livingston Parish if its identity was disclosed.

"My client is local, they’re based here in the area, and they are perfectly capable of providing all the services," Murrill said. "They would just like the opportunity to bid on it."

Harrell defended the parish's decision in an interview this week and accused the company of "just grasping" for work. The emergency management director said he knows who sent the letter, but did not want to out the company.

"They're just trying to figure out a way to get the money, that's all this is," Harrell said.

He said the parish has been very happy with Ceres as its contractor and saw no reason to switch for this work, which he maintained still falls within the scope of the broad contract.

Harrell pointed to a section of the contract that includes a fee schedule for cleaning up waterway debris, both in linear feet and cubic yards, measurements that federal agencies use to determine reimbursement.

"I wrote it (the contract) for any kind of waterway debris," Harrell said.

Harrell added that working with Ceres, the parish is receiving "every penny of reimbursement we had coming to us," a contrast to the disaster Livingston Parish found itself in several years ago after Hurricane Gustav.

Following Gustav, the parish ended up in a legal battle with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over reimbursements for debris cleanup work done by some local contractors.

The parish paid a heavy price for that in legal fees, and some companies went under because FEMA would not reimburse the work, Harrell said. Today, as the parish tries to compile the list of waterways to clean, it is running into logjams, because so many rivers and streams are cited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violations.

"We're not gonna pull the Gustav stuff and just do what we want to do," Harrell said. "I'm sticking with them. We can't afford another Gustav."

The parish did, however, award a bid to Alvin Fairburn and Associates, to conduct engineering, permitting and project management for the USDA funding. The Denham Springs-based firm was involved in the Gustav work and does a lot of other engineering work for the parish and the Livingston Parish School Board. Harrell said the firm will work under his direction.

"They turned in the best package," Harrell said, adding that they are subcontracting with other good firms.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.