Parish council, adminstration at odds over skills center

Published 10:31 am Saturday, April 12, 2014

By Richard Meek

Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – Refurbishing of the Homer Joseph Center is complete and ready to offer life skills classes for young and old alike as early as next week.

Or is it?

A simmering feud between St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom and council member Lennix Madere flared once again Tuesday night when Robottom said the center would open next week. Robottom even called up parish Health and Human Services Director Rhonda Lemons to inform the council that some of the classes scheduled are instruction in financial and computer literacy.

Robottom said furniture and computers are in place and Internet connections hooked up. She added that no additional renovations to the building are planned, which irked Madere, who contends the walls need additional improvements as well as to be painted.

“If it’s going to belong to the parish, it needs to look like it belongs to the parish,” Madere said. “When you have (residents) walk inside the building, they should not see walls that need to be repaired.”

Council members also heard from St. John Parish Assessor Whitney Joseph Jr., who appeared at Madere’s request to clarify statements Robottom made two weeks ago. It was then that Robottom said she was informed by the assessor’s office that the property was valued at $10,000, $4,000 below what the parish had paid for it in 1995 and after nearly $100,000 was put into refurbishing the structure.

During the council meeting Joseph said only the land is worth $10,000, however. He said he would place the value of the building at $60,000 but quickly added that number “doesn’t’ mean anything to our office” because parish property is not taxed.

“The condition of the building is much better than what it was but still work needs to be done,” he said. “There are bumps in the walls, and they need painting. I would not want my house to look like that. Our children deserve better.”

Another heated exchange occurred when council member Larry Snyder questioned Robottom regarding why the $25,000 the council authorized to make the repairs at its March 25 meeting was not being utilized for that purpose. The parish president responded that although the motion was approved the council “did not find the money.”

She added that as far as the administration is concerned, “we are done. It’s a matter of dollars and cents.”

“We are confident the building is suited for our purpose,” she added.

Discussion followed — with no resolution — regarding the money that the council earmarked for repairs. There were accusations that Robottom was blocking the will of the council.

Finally, Council Chairman Marvin Perrilloux ended the conversation by suggesting Madere, Robottom and legal counsel meet to settle the issue.

“This has been dragging on forever,” Perrilloux said. “We need to put an end to it.”

Robottom said beginning next week the center will be open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and accessible to the community. Early Education and resume writing classes are also proposed.

In other council news:

• Robottom said a grant application is awaiting the signature of Gov. Bobby Jindal that would allow the parish to renovate the existing West St. John Senior Citizen Building. She is also recommending the parish spend $500,000 for a new building utilizing funds from the recently approved $30 million bond issue.

• Plans appear to be less certain for a proposed welcome center on the west bank. Robottom said her administration is working with officials from the state Office of Economic Development to finalize a grant application for the center.

She added that economic development officials are recommending she explore the possibility of tying the welcome center with the long-proposed West Bank Farmer’s Market. Currently, Robottom said options for tents are currently being explored with a permanent building scheduled to be built in the future for the market.

She is hoping to combine funding from a Community Development Block Grant and a USDA grant to build the welcome center and farmer’s market.

“We can pair (the grants) with other dollars to make it a good project,” she said.

Council member Art Smith, whose district includes the west bank, questioned why the parish has not accepted a house being offered by a local family to serve as the welcome center.

Robottom said the offers involves more than just a donation and added, “There are a lot of variables we have to address.”