District 8 Parish Councilwoman Teri Casso is fond of paraphrasing 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who is supposed to have said “Laws are like sausages; it is best not to see them being made.” A case in point is the political charcuterie which led to Walmart’s newest Ascension location at the intersection of Hwy 44 and Hwy 42. Coincidence or no, a Casso-owned company pocketed 155,000 leafs of cabbage upon selling property across Hwy 42.
Casso Enterprises, LLC sold a .64 acre tract directly across Hwy 42 from Walmart Fresh Market to Galvez Medical, LLC on May 11, 2015 for $420,000. It acquired the tract on May 16, 2013 for $265,000 from Neighbors Federal Credit Union, which had merged with Keypoint Federal Credit Union, which paid $275,000 to acquire the subject tract in 2010.
Neighbors/Keypoint absorbed a $10,000 loss compared to Casso Enterprises $155,000 profit, a 59% percent return.
The May 2013 purchase occurred less than a month before a Joint Planning and Zoning Commission meeting (June 12, 2013) recommended approval of Walmart’s Small Planned Unit Development (SPUD) required to open its Fresh Market. It opened for business early in 2015.
On March 21, 2013 Councilwoman Casso’s husband, and fellow member in Casso Enterprises, Coy Casso purchased a 1.14 acre property across the side street from Galvez Medical tract…and also directly across Hwy 42 from Walmart. Deposit Guaranty Bank, which acquired the property in 1990 for an unknown price, sold Mr. Casso the property for $317,500. Teri Casso is listed as a secondary owner by Ascension’s Assessor.
Pelican Post questioned Teri Casso with regard to the Casso Enterprises transaction via email but no response has been received. Four questions were posed:
“Were you aware that Wal-Mart intended to build its Fresh Market directly across Hwy 42 from the subject property when your company made that purchase in May of 2013?If yes, how did you come by that information?In your opinion, did the fact that Wal-Mart built across Hwy 42 enhance the value of your property?Was Neighbors Federal Credit Union aware that Wal-Mart intended to build there when it sold the subject property in May of 2013?”
Casso did respond to a text message alerting her to the email correspondence.
The sausage making occurred during the negotiations leading up to Walmart’s acquisition of the, approximately, 6 acres where it would build Fresh Market. That purchase was made on January 31, 2014 and the price was $2.42 million. But Walmart had targeted two other properties before settling upon the Hwy 44/42 location.
In 2012 Walmart executed a purchase agreement for 9 acres at the intersection of Hwy 44 and Causey Rd, property owned by Dale Hidalgo. Hidalgo and his real estate agent, Randy Simpson, negotiated the potential $2.39 million sale, contingent upon Council approval of rezoning and obtaining a liquor permit even though the site is within 1,000 feet of Lighthouse Church.
“We met with Walmart and several elected officials,” Dale Hidalgo identified Parish President Tommy Martinez, legal counsel O’Neil Parenton and three council members; then Chairman Chris Loar, Benny Johnson and Dempsey Lambert. “Everyone seemed enthusiastic. Walmart agreed to build an $850,000 sewer treatment plant it would donate to Ascension Parish, and pay for turn lanes on all four legs of the intersection at Hwy 44 and Causey.”
Walmart promised 80 permanent jobs and sales tax on $30 million annual revenue according to Hidalgo. Randy Simpson obtained a letter from the pastor of Lighthouse Church evidencing its approval of Walmart at the location, noting that a convenience store already occupies the lot across Hwy 44 and it sells liquor.
“Councilman Loar did all the talking and assured us all that there was nothing to hold the sale up,” Hidalgo recalled.
Then, all of sudden, the deal was off.
“I got a call from Walmart,” remembered Randy Simpson with still lingering disgust. “Mr. Loar informed them that there were ‘not enough votes on the Council’ but he identified ‘family-owned property on Hwy 42’ instead of Dale’s nine acres.”
Simpson claimed to have called Chris Loar who would only say, “It’s not going to happen.”
Loar has not responded to Pelican Post’s emailed questions or text.
How could Loar have known that council votes to rezone Hidalgo’s property were lacking? Pelican Post was able to contact five members of the Parish Council, none of whom remembered the matter even being proposed for the agenda.
Dale Hidalgo was, to put it mildly, unhappy. He tried in vain to have the rezoning of his property to accommodate Walmart’s SPUD requirement placed before the appropriate parish governing bodies. What happened next infuriated him.
“The Council, or certain members anyway, threatened to put me out of business,” Hidalgo asserted. “I started Dale’s Garbage 35 years ago with a $300 pickup truck that had a cattle rack; and two customers. I worked very hard to build my business.”
A business that now includes five $300,000 automated trucks and over 7,000 customers.
That is how he perceived the Council’s consideration of an exclusive franchise for garbage pickup in Ascension Parish which is serviced by three vendors at present. Hidalgo claims that he was forewarned by a member of President Martinez’ administration about the Council’s intention.
Discussions were had in April of 2012 at a meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee before the full Council opted to explore non-exclusive franchising at its July 5, 2012 meeting.
Strategic Planning’s Chair, Councilman Kent Schexnaydre, insisted that the objective was not to put anybody out of business when the committee revisited the issue on March 11, 2013.
“We were looking at ways to lower the costs for our residents,” Schexnaydre said Saturday “and get more services.”
According to Schexnaydre three Ascension municipalities, and several neighboring parishes, have enacted franchise agreements for the service and virtually all charge the consumer substantially less than residents of Ascension living outside those incorporated areas. While neighbors pay $15-18 per month, Ascension residents pay in the mid-$30 range. Recycling, bulk waste removal, and other services are denied those residents too.
Councilman Dempsey Lambert insisted “We’re not here to put anyone out of business” at that March 11,2013 committee meeting. Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee was even more vehement, likening the exclusivity to a monopoly, and decrying the fact that two companies with substantial investments would be squeezed out.
But two council members wanted an exclusive garbage franchise explored: both calling such a franchise “economy of scale” and the only way to provide additional services for Ascension customers at a lower price.
Chris Loar was “serious about going exclusive.”
“I think the public is watching how the sausage is made and I think it’s an excellent thing for them to see. It’s not easy to do this work and to do the right thing,” Teri Casso said a mere ten days before her husband would purchase 1.14 acres across Hwy 42 from the site that would be approved for Walmart Fresh Market by Planning and Zoning.
The Councilwoman would defend her colleagues against accusations of cronyism before adding:
“Most often, the good ole’ boys are in the public. The good ole’ boys want to keep things in this parish the way they are, to preserve for them the right to take advantage of, frankly, the citizens of this parish by charging them too much, to do too little,” Teri Casso said two months prior to her company buying .64 acres that would yield $155,000 in profit after Walmart Fresh Market was up and running.
“I will assure my constituents that the good ole’ boys do not sit among this Council,” she went on. “The good ole’ boys sit among the public on occasion; and protect themselves. And it is my obligation to find a way to give my citizens, that I represent, the best possible service for the lowest price.”
Dale Hidalgo resides in Council District 6, not Casso’s District 8, by the way.
In the end, nothing changed with Ascension’s garbage service. No franchise agreement, exclusive or non-exclusive, was ever effectuated. The Parish Council did vote to rezone Walmart’s Hwy 44/42 location as a SPUD on July 18, 2013 without objection according to the meeting minutes.
Teri Casso recused herself from that matter stating “she has business interest in the area.”
NOTE: The March 11, 2013 Strategic Planning meeting can be viewed by accessing the archival footage from the parish website; www.ascensionparish.net and clicking on Departments to find Ascension 21. Casso’s participation in the discussion starts at 1:54:29 into the video.