Saying local officials won’t do what needs to be done, a Louisiana House panel Wednesday advanced legislation that could give the state authority to take over the troubled water system in the small northeast Louisiana town of St. Joseph.

For months, the water coming out of the taps for the historic town’s 1,100 residents has been varying shades of brown. State health officials say the water is safe, though murky.

The state has $6 million ready to go to fix the 80-year-old system. But because St. Joseph Mayor Edward L. Brown Sr. has not filed a required financial audit, the state cannot release the money.

During the House Natural Resource committee hearing, Rep. Jack Montoucet challenged Brown to allow an administrator to take over financial issues in St. Joseph.

“We leave this meeting you and I, we go up to the 4th floor,” where the Governor’s Office is located, Montoucet said. “You agree to allow the governor to appoint a fiscal administrator. We can get that money. We can fix these people up. We can get them some good drinking water. And we can quit messing around here.”

Actually, a committee of the Attorney General, the Legislative Auditor and the state treasurer would select an administrator for the 19th Judicial Court to approve, said Julie Baxter Payor, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ deputy chief of staff. But Brown’s agreement would speed things along, she said.

Brown responded, “Because I know what the fiscal administrator means, I would have to side with no.”

The mayor argues that he has cooperated with the Legislative Auditor’s Office, providing the information requested as fast as possible. What needs to be done is for Auditor Daryl Purpera to extend the deadline, which would free the money while the last of the audit issues are cleared up.

“The problem would be solved if we could get the funding,” Brown said, adding that he doesn’t drink the water his town sells.

Purpera’s auditors had found questionable expenditures to members of the mayor’s family and claim Brown has delayed in providing information. Purpera has refused to grant the extension. Pat Credeur, executive director of the Louisiana Rural Water Association, based in Kinder, won’t drink the water in St. Joseph, either. The association’s recent survey found 25 leaks that resulted in the loss of 89 percent of the water pumped from the ground. The plant that filters the water needs work and the pipes throughout the town are aged and most need replacement, he said.

House Bill 823, sponsored by Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, would require enforcement of “secondary maximum contaminant levels,” generally is aimed at the clarity of the water. The primary levels are aimed at health safety standards. The secondary level sets maximum amounts for more than dozen minerals. Because St. Joseph’s water has higher than acceptable levels of Manganese, the secondary enforcement would allow the state to take over the water system. That move would make the $6 million available to upgrade the system. No other water system in Louisiana is under the secondary level.

“Rep. Hunter is asking for an exception,” state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said. “The bill just says that the people of St. Joseph need help now, after years of money being set aside.”

“It’s not a perfect bill, but we have to keep this on the front burner,” said Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero. “It’s obvious to me that the mayor has not done his job, cannot do the job and doesn’t want to do the job. If I was his constituent I would ask him to resign.”

The committee advanced the legislation without objection. It now will be voted on by the entire House.

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