Less than 48 hours after officially becoming mayor of Abita Springs, Dan Curtis found himself at Town Hall after hours.
That's not unexpected while learning the ropes at a new job. What is surprising, however, is why Curtis was there. He wasn’t at his desk handling the volumes of paperwork that come with being mayor — he'd already done that earlier in the day.
Curtis was repairing a toilet in Town Hall late in the afternoon on Jan. 2, before guests arrived for a function that night.
It’s common for small-town mayors to tackle odd jobs around town, and Curtis isn’t averse to the task. It was a reminder, though, that being a public servant means being on call 24/7.
“The past four years (as an Abita Springs alderman) don’t even scratch the surface of what transpired in my first two days (as mayor,)” Curtis said. “Everyone has something they want to tell you. I love that.
"That’s what you want — that small community feel. That’s the way we operate, trying to help one another. But still, there’s only 24 hours in a day.”
Curtis, who served one term as a town alderman, took office Jan. 1. Though his first couple of days in office were a whirlwind, he knows he’ll acclimate to the pace of the job in due time.
He has the confidence of Abita Springs voters. He ran first in the five-candidate primary in November, and then he grabbed 66 percent of votes in a December runoff against incumbent Greg Lemons to become mayor.
Curtis, 60, said he has known Lemons since childhood and that he won’t hesitate to call on him if he needs advice. When local rivers threatened to flood in late December, the two men rode the streets of town together surveying potential trouble spots.
Curtis said former mayors Bryan Gowland and Louis Fitzmorris, who now is St. Tammany Parish assessor, told him their phone lines are open, as well.
“That’s the small-town mentality,” Curtis said. “We all want what’s best for Abita Springs and we’re moving forward. (My vision) just differed with Greg’s, and that’s why I ran. He started some things in town he wanted to see done and I’ve assured him they’ll get done.”
Repair of the town’s sewer treatment facility is high on that list. Work began on Lemons’ watch and while Curtis was an alderman. Full repair of the sewer plant is expected to take another couple of years and cost as much as $6 million.
Curtis said, however, that there may not be enough funding in place to complete the work, and it’s his top priority to make sure the project can be done without having to raise taxes or utility rates.
The sewer project is being financed with 20-year utilities revenue bonds, which in turn are being repaid by sewer fees. The town increased the fees in 2017 to cover the cost of the sewer rehab.
“I’ve asked all along, ‘We’ve raised everyone’s fees but we can’t fix their problems?’” Curtis said. “We need to find other ways to supplement (the money to finish the project.) We need to cut some things, and we need to cut back on some other things.”
Curtis stressed fiscally conservative policies will be a hallmark of his administration. He said he’s considering renegotiating fees for professional services to the town, such as those paid to town attorney Edward Deano.
“We’re paying someone on the high end (of the pay scale),” Curtis said. “Maybe we can negotiate ... that amount.”
Curtis also plans to talk with Sheriff Randy Smith about what Abita Springs pays the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office to police the town. Curtis said he’s due to pay the sheriff’s office about $303,000, which doesn’t include property taxes or portions of fees collected in the town’s traffic court.
With taxes and fees, Curtis said, the total is much closer to $600,000, and it’s a significant portion of the town’s budget.
Lemons proposed a $5.95 million budget for 2019, which included $2 million for the sewer project. The outgoing board of aldermen voted to let the new board pass budget measures.
Curtis said he doesn't think Abita should have its own police force, as it did in the past.
“I love having the Sheriff’s Office in Abita,” Curtis said. “But we have to be realistic about the cost. if you don’t have your (own) law enforcement agency, our contract says they will respond here just like any other unincorporated area in the parish.”
Curtis, an Abita-area native, grew up less than a half-mile from town limits. He remembers when La. 59 was a gravel road, and riding down it to the town center to play in the park and take a swim in the river.
As an adult, Curtis spent 14 years in the Army, many of them in military intelligence and as a linguistic specialist working counterdrug missions. He worked for about a year for the sheriff and spent 22 years as an educator for St. Tammany Public Schools. He resigned his position at Lyon Elementary School in Covington so he could devote his full attention to being mayor.
The Board of Aldermen also has several new faces. Regan Contois, Evette Randolph and Stephen Saussy are new to the panel, and former aldermen Pat Patterson returns after a hiatus from the board. Ryan Murphy is the lone returning member.
Curtis said he’s excited about working with the aldermen and is confident they can find solutions to any problems the town may face.
“We have a good board, and I think they all want to be involved,” Curtis said.
Small towns, places like Abita Springs, are supposed to be that way, he added.
“This is such a unique place. There are a lot of great places in St. Tammany, but I’m proud to be representing this town ... I will work every day tirelessly for Abita Springs.”