21 St. John residents denied promised home elevation

Published 12:14 am Saturday, October 28, 2017

LAPLACE — A St. John the Baptist Parish councilman is calling for an independent audit of how more than $32 million of a state Community Development Block Grant targeted to provide assistance to victims of Hurricane Isaac are being awarded.

Councilman Michael Wright asked for the audit during a lengthy discussion this week where it was revealed 21 parish families would not be having their homes elevated as previously promised.

“It may take that, to have an audit of each and every dollar spent,” Wright said.

Even before the Parish Council began its Tuesday regular meeting discussion, which lasted more than an hour, upset residents had their say during public input at the beginning of the meeting. Several residents spoke, some passionately, about how they were promised their houses, all of which were flooded during Isaac, would be raised, only to be told in the past few days a lack of funding would not allow for the raising.

What exactly happened remains unclear, but what is known is that at a July 13 meeting, where several Parish Council members were in attendance, 55 families were told the contracts for repairs at their houses were temporarily being put on hold while the budget was revisited. However, those residents were promised their houses would be elevated.

But in the past two weeks, 21 applicants were basically told the program had run out of money to elevate their homes.

“The money was promised to the parish,” said resident Kevin Williams, whose house now will not be elevated. “We are looking for accountability.”

The CBDG grant totaled $32,674,000, St. John Chief Administrative Officer Laverne Toombs said, of which $5 million went to the parish School Board, and another $5.4 million to the Housing Authority to be used for construction of 23 apartments in Garyville. Some of the money was divvied up in other ways, including more than $1 million to small business owners.

Approximately 1,400 homeowners applied for the grant, and 730 were ruled eligible. Toombs said 315 homes have been or are being repaired at a cost exceeding $20 million.

For those who are not receiving the elevation, Scott Reddoch of Royal Engineering, a New Orleans-based engineering and consulting firm overseeing the grant, said they are victims of bad timing.

He said the process included the initial applications being screened by a separate firm before being passed on to him. From that point, there was further review and in some cases individual applications were delayed because of title and other legal issues. While attorneys were completing the additional research, those applications were placed in what Reddoch called a “holding pattern,” which would become a critical sticking point.

Once the application was completely approved, it was moved into the construction phase, and only at that point was it placed in line with the others. So even though a homeowner may have been one of the first to file an application, he or she might have ultimately been placed in the back of the line because of unforeseen legal issues. Unfortunately for those residents, once officials realized the program was running short on cash, those at the end of the line were denied the elevation originally promised.

Three months after the July 15 meeting, it was determined that of the final 55 applicants, 34 would receive all of the work required, including 12 elevations, five new construction projects and 17 with rehab work only. The final 21 would only receive repairs to damage caused by Hurricane Isaac, which Reddoch said is “keeping within the spirit of the program.”

He acknowledged that all 21 of those homes are in a flood zone.

Reddoch admitted Tuesday that during the July meeting he was not aware of the potential fiscal problems, saying 150 houses were under construction in one form or another at that time.

“Aren’t we paying you to know this?” Councilman Larry Snyder asked. “With the amount of money we are paying (to the consultants), then you should (be able) to predict the future.”

Although the time frame was not completely clarified, Reddoch said after another look at the revised budget, “we realized we would not have the money to do (all of the remaining elevations” and residents were notified.

Reddoch and Toombs cited change orders on many homes as the culprit in the higher than expected costs. It was revealed nearly $1.8 million in change orders have impaired the budget.

Reddoch said change orders are issued for life safety, public health and code issues, and may include faulty wiring, which could pose a fire hazard; a leaking roof that could create mold problems and rotten flooding. He said HUD requires all of those issues corrected during construction.

Toombs noted the original renovation estimates on houses were made during the first visit, but it was not uncommon for additional problems to surface during the actual construction.

“(Change orders) increased the construction costs tremendously,” she said.

Reddoch said $282,000 remains of the original $32 million to complete the repairs on the final 21 homes.

The explanations and presentations of the numbers appeared to do little to ease residents and Council members, and seemed to increase growing tension between the legislative and executive branches of parish government.

“I see a lack of communication,” Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. said. “Everyone was promised elevation and repairs. Now the rug is being pulled out from under them. That’s a problem. Tell me up front what you are going to do or not going to do. Or what’s possible or what’s not possible.”

Madere added someone should have been watching change orders.

“We missed the boat on this,” Councilman Marvin Perrilloux said. “I don’t understand how we missed that.”

“(Royal) shouldn’t have made that statement (that all houses would be elevated),” he added. “This is a hard pill to swallow. It all reflects back on this Council.”

Toombs said the parish recently applied for a FEMA funded elevation grant, which, if received, would allow those 21 residents to apply for additional funds. However, no timetable has been established as to when or if those funds would become available.

Parish President Natalie Robottom said she is also looking into some disaster funding originally allocated to other parishes but was not used and might be available.

— By Richard Meek