St. John Council splits job of selling seized property

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 30, 2009



LAPLACE — Following a heated debate that included accusations of political favoritism and shouts and applause from the audience, the St. John Parish Council voted to appoint two separate companies — a LaPlace firm and another unnamed minority company — to help the parish through the procedures of selling off seized property.

Parish officials said the council initiated the first small steps in the lengthy process of selling off the property, which has been seized from landowners who stopped paying taxes, but administrators are not sure how they will configure a contract that was originally meant for one company.

“I don’t think it is a good idea,” said Parish President Bill Hubbard regarding the vote. “But if the council has decided to split the contract, so be it. I’m just ready to get this moving forward.”

Since taking office early last year, Hubbard said he has been working with parish attorneys to figure out a way to start selling off the seized property — some of which the parish has possessed since the 1920s — in an effort to clean up derelict land and possibly make money for the parish. The original contract was to allow Choice Title Inc. of LaPlace to come up with specific procedures for future property sales at a rate of about $1,000 to $1,200 per property. St. John Public Information Officer Buddy Boe said the parish is in possession of about 500 properties scattered all across St. John.

When the vote on the measure came up, however, Division A Councilman-at-Large Dale Wolfe raised questions about cost and the fairness of using one company to make the decisions. Wolfe said he had a separate minority-owned company, which he did not name, that he would like to add to the contract. He said he would provide a name at the council’s next meeting, scheduled for July 14. Wolfe had the support of Council members Haston Lewis and Charles Julien.

“I want to make sure we are being fair to the black communities,” Wolfe said. “I want to be certain we are obeying the law to the letter and not taking away property from under people’s noses.”

Following Wolfe’s proposal, Division B Councilman-at-Large Steve Lee appeared to take exception to some of the things being said during the debate. In reaction, he countered with another motion that called for Choice Title to cover only the sales of seized property in the half of the parish that he represents.

“I don’t want to wait on this, and I have no problem splitting it up,” said Lee. “I want to see Division B cleaned up. I’m not going to be chastised for helping my constituents.”

Council Chairman Ronnie Smith said he could not support Lee’s motion and added that it may be beneficial for two separate companies to work as a team since one “may not have all the answers.”

Later in the debate, Lee withdrew his motion and council members passed Wolfe’s motion to split the contract. The vote was 7-1 in favor of the split, with Lee casting the lone “nay” vote. Councilwoman Cheryl Millet abstained from the vote.