Volunteers could manage the complicated pumps in St. Bernard Parish, and goats could be brought in to chomp down on the grass growing on the parish’s levees.
Those were among the ideas batted around Thursday by flood protection commissioners searching for ways to keep the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District out of bankruptcy after St. Bernard residents this month once again voted down a higher property tax rate.
The suggestion to use livestock to keep the grass in check was made at least partially in jest as a Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East committee discussed the issue.
But the proposal was a sign of the dire straits the board finds itself in as it grapples with the high costs of both maintaining the levees and floodwalls that protect St. Bernard and the rest of the east bank from a storm surge during a hurricane and also operating the drainage system that keeps the parish dry during more typical rains.
The Lake Borgne Basin District is about $3.5 million short of the money it needs to carry out those dual roles — money both to pay for the day-to-day expenses of the system and to provide a reserve to pay for long-term repairs, such as the once-a-decade overhauls needed to keep the five sector gates in the parish in working order.
There’s no clear plan for coming up with that money, which amounts to more than the district’s annual budget, after voters rejected a proposal to increase the district’s taxes for the second time.
Some relief could come from reducing staffing costs by offering early retirements and cutting back on overtime, Lake Borgne District Director Nick Cali said. But the total annual payroll for all 31 employees of the district amounts to only about $2 million, he said.
A smaller staff would mean the district would not have employees on station 24 hours a day to operate and maintain the parish’s pumps and drainage canals and could have to cut back on maintenance, such as the crews who trim the grass that helps protect the levees.
Staff reductions could be offset, in part, by using a volunteer model similar to that used by some fire departments, Commissioner Paul Tilly suggested.
The Flood Protection Authority already is seeking funding for a pilot program that would train residents to run the pumps; it expects to know by this summer whether it can move forward with that plan, Executive Director Bob Turner said.
Cutbacks, however, could mean the Flood Protection Authority won’t be able to keep the drainage system up to the standards that residents expect.
Drainage in the Flood Protection Authority’s other two districts, which cover East Jefferson and Orleans Parish, is handled by local governments.
Flood Protection Authority President Stephen Estopinal said after the meeting that he wasn’t necessarily comfortable with the idea of volunteers operating “the complex and dangerous” systems that pump water out of St. Bernard.
If it comes to a choice between funding drainage designed to protect against rain or maintaining the $14.5 billion system designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect against a hurricane’s storm surge, Estopinal said the levees and floodwalls have to take precedence.
“If the drainage fails, people’s houses get wet” from street flooding, he said. “But if the federal system fails, you’re looking at a significant loss of life.”
To guard against a worst-case scenario, Estopinal said, the Flood Protection Authority should also look into the process for a state entity to declare bankruptcy.
He also suggested seeking changes to the legislation that governs the Flood Protection Authority, though he declined to discuss details.
One possible approach could be to allow each of the three levee districts included in the Flood Protection Authority to spend money in other districts. That is prohibited under the law that created the districts after levees failed during Hurricane Katrina.
That move could face opposition from lawmakers who don’t want one parish’s taxes to subsidize drainage improvements in another, particularly given the unwillingness of St. Bernard voters to foot the bill themselves.
Without confirming that the authority would seek to move in that direction, Estopinal said a regional approach means understanding that storms don’t recognize political boundaries.
“If I’m a taxpayer in Jefferson Parish and I know my tax money is protecting me, I don’t care if it’s being spent in Orleans or St. Bernard,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.