Dubbed “a big stinky pile” by Parish Council Chairman Bill Dawson, your $306,200 taxpayer bailout of Ascension Wastewater Treatment has to be among the worst expenditures in a year replete with waste and dispensation of political patronage on a scale heretofore unseen in the parish…and that is saying something. Let’s begin with the few positives.
Faced with a two-year backlog on ditch-cleaning work orders in March of 2017 President Kenny Matassa’s administration did nothing but talk for 18 months. Finally, in August a company was hired to begin work. A $250,000 contract was increased by $500,000 in November as voters renewed a 5-mill property tax to fund maintenance and operation of East Ascension Drainage as the board sits on $60 million.
The MoveAscension road improvement program seems to be accomplishing a few things, with safety widening and roundabouts planned for several north Ascension roads. Still in pre-construction, those various projects have allocated $6 million of the $35 million for design, right-of-way acquisition and other items.
And then there’s was the Transportation Committee’s recommendation to spend $190,531 for “Public Outreach” about MoveAscension. In an instance of fiscal responsibility the full council declined to appropriate the money in February, referring the item back to Transportation where it seems to have died. More often than not, things did not go the way of frugality.
The worst case of waste, and it’s not close…
1. Matassa’s padding of the payroll
Matassa was a lame duck within months of his January 4, 2016 inauguration after alienating many of his supporters in a razor thin electoral victory in 2015. With nothing to lose, why not pay off all your friends with taxpayer dollars?
Since he was inaugurated to Ascension’s presidency 177 new employees have been hired, increasing the parish’s annual payroll from $17.5 million to just under $21 million. Attrition rates resulted in a net personnel increase of 99 positions, many of which were added in 2018. Are you receiving an extra $3.5 million worth of services from parish government?
2. Studies, studies, and more studies
Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) is pocketing $450,000 to regurgitate problems we all know exist in Ascension where lack of infrastructure bedevils the east bank. Its cookie cutter conclusions are an abject waste of time and money.
Another $1.2 million or so is going to HNTB engineers which finalized a Floodplain Management Plan in June. But Councilman Dempsey Lambert refuses to place it on an East Ascension Drainage Board agenda for consideration. Lambert, who chairs the Board, has not explained his lethargy other than to say the plan could jeopardize the new courthouse planned next door to Ascension’s Governmental Complex in Gonzales.
HNTB is also working on a Transportation Master Plan which recommended…
a bridge across the Mississippi River in Geismar without addressing the half-a-billion (or so) dollars necessary to pay for it.
3. $25,000 to Urban Systems
While the sum is small, Ascension had already paid for the report delivered to Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson in April of 2016. Urban Systems’ findings included the need for more stringent Traffic Impact Analysis required of every subdivision development. Hidden for a year before Councilman Aaron Lawler was made aware in early 2017, the chair of the Transportation Committee sat on the report for another year before paying Urban Systems an additional $25,000 to produce essentially the same document it had delivered in 2016.
In the interim several major subdivisions were approved by Ascension’s Planning Commission which would not have been approved under the sterner TIA procedure; most notably…
4. Ongoing PUA money pit
Appearing on the April 10 Utilities Committee meeting agenda was:
Approval of Professional Services Contract between Owen and White Consulting Engineers and Parish Utilities of Ascension to provide consulting services in the evaluation and operational assistance of water treatment and production of the water plant located in Donaldsonville, LA. Six months of evaluation and operational assistance – not to exceed
$72,000.00. (William Daniel, Infrastructure Director)
That’s on top of the contract with TMB, Inc. to lend its expertise in running the parish-owned water plant, formerly Peoples Water Company. In July Infrastructure Director William Daniel estimated it would cost $25-30 million for necessary replacement of pipes. In September he announced a $10 million loan at 2.375% interest, and a $7.3 million grant.
$13 million of the total would go toward replacing some of PUA’s pipes, including all that are galvanized, as well as 3,000 antiquated meters, ground and elevated storage. The remaining $4 million, plus would go to “some work on the plant” itself. Approved in October, Daniel envisions a two-year construction period.
Ill-equipped to venture into the water business, taxpayers will be footing the bill for this folly for decades.
5. Taleta Wesley’s salary/SSA contract to perform her job
Unable to write job descriptions or accomplish much of anything else as head of Human Resources, Taleta Wesley’s $104,499 salary was augmented by the $76,000 paid to SSA Consultants to perform Wesley’s duties. Dumped in September, Wesley went out swinging, alleging that President Matassa routinely engaged in race/sex discrimination including her termination.
6. The sham prosecution of Matassa
It was the softest prosecution this writer has ever witnessed with Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor playing opossum. Landry’s office bungled its way through the entire proceeding, with an assist from the local bar and bench. Whatever it cost, State of Louisiana versus Kenneth Matassa was a waste.
Remember it when Landry seeks reelection next year.
7. $15,000 to Skip Phillips and the ABA power grab
Whatever it cost in personnel and electricity to conduct 13 Home Rule Charter Revision Committee meetings (and don’t forget two Committee of the Whole meetings in 2017), taxpayers should be reimbursed by Council Chairman Bill Dawson. Without Dawson’s Machiavellian machinations the committee would never have been convened. Dawson pitched the committee as a means to update the 25-year old Home Rule Charter when it was all about A Better Ascension’s effort to replace the Office of Parish President with a Parish Manager.
As the proceedings drew to a close a legal expert was brought on, but prior to the Council appropriating Skip Phillips’ $15,000 payment. Phillips would opine:
“It’s basically the same thing except the police jury form of government is statutory. What you’re proposing to do, and what a police jury likely would do if they were hiring a parish manager, I don’t see a whole lot of operational or functional difference.”
8. $200,000 Engineering for New River Weir removal
Multiple contracts were awarded H. Davis Cole to engineer the removal of New River weir, located behind Walmart on Weber City Rd. Along with dredging of 2.7 miles of New River, the cost of the project recommended approached $6 million. At the most recent EA Drainage Board meetings the project seems to have been shelved.
This one’s on District 10 Councilman John Cagnolatti.
“His decision, from his district,” reasoned Chairman Dempsey Lambert in October of 2017. “I mean this is his decision.”
“Johnny, this is something you want to do?” queried Prairieville Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee.
“Absolutely, Doc,” assured Councilman Cagnolatti. “I trust the authorities and the professionals who’ve told me that it’s going to improve drainage, not only through the city but (north of Gonzales). On top of that, it’ll help sediment as well. Instead of backing it up where the weir starts all the way through the system.”
9. $32,500 for after-the-fact Courthouse Drainage Study
Plans to build the new courthouse run afoul of HNTB’s Floodplain Management Plan (see No. 2 above). So EA Drainage decided to pay for an after-the-fact hydrological and hydraulic study:
Parish President to enter into a contract with Quality Engineering to perform a regional H&H Study of the watershed on the property of the proposed Courthouse – $35, 200.00
10. Prevost Hospital tax election
Engineered by west bank council members, Oliver Joseph and Bill Dawson, the Council sought to divert half of Prevost Hospital’s funding to pay for recreation facilities on the west bank. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the decrease in a November 6 election that should never have been held. So little thought went into it that an attempt was made to illegally place the recreation tax on the same ballot with reduction of the hospital tax.
Certain members mocked Hospital Administrator Vince Cataldo at multiple Council and committee meetings along the way for good measure.