Parish Council ponies up for St. John code compliance

Published 12:13 am Wednesday, September 5, 2018

LAPLACE — Making up-front, monthly payments of more than $23,000 to South Central Planning & Development Commission is not a gratuitous donation of public funds, according to the St. John the Baptist Parish Council.

By majority vote, Parish Council members agreed to a new payment schedule with South Central for the continued Code Compliance Program use, which handles building plan review and inspections.

Since Hurricane Katrina, South Central has handled code enforcement for St. John Parish and numerous other parishes by maintaining manpower and infrastructure and keeping 80 percent of the revenue generated through building permits, while the parish receives 20 percent.

Due to an expiring 10-year, $1.8 million grant initially awarded by the federal government to South Central Planning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Commission asked its member parishes — St. John, Terrebonne, Assumption, Lafourche, St. Charles, St. James, St. Mary — to accept a new payment structure of $23,357, according to numbers released by the Parish, in upfront monthly fees to maintain its services without a monthly payback should little to no building permit action take place in a random month.

Planning and Zoning Director Alexandra Carter said there would be no additional monthly costs if service demand goes up, except in the instance of a major disaster.

The St. John District Attorney’s Office stressed the upfront fee amounted to a “gratuitous donation,” and under state statute, the use of public funds must have a demonstrable, objective, reasonable expectation of value. A local D.A.’s opinion and state Attorney General’s opinion indicated it would be up to the Parish Council to determine if St. John was receiving that value with the up front payments.

Carter and Parish President Natalie Robottom said any increase in expenditures under the monthly fee system would be substantially less than the cost for St. John to run its own independent program.

Parish administrators stressed an independent evaluation produced by the University of Louisiana-Lafayette indicated the South Central arrangement is the Parish’s most cost effective solution.

Council members Jaclyn Hotard, Kurt Becnel, Julia Remondet, Marvin Perrilloux, Michael Wright and Thomas Malik approved the new agreement.

Council members Larry Sorapuru Jr., Lennix Madere Jr. and Larry Snyder voted against it.

Madere was the most vocal in his dissent, stressing to fellow board members they would not even be discussing the revised pay schedule had South Central not encountered a “financial downfall.”

“Their whole objective was to keep them financially secure,” he said. “It wasn’t about the benefit of the individual parish.”

Madere said he is against spending Parish money on anything before services are rendered.

Snyder echoed the sentiment, adding St. John has drainage and water problems and employees who did not get raises but can find money to pay South Central for services “they are not doing.”

“Why should we have to pay in advance for service we may not even need,” he said. “That’s why I will not go along with this. I didn’t go along with it last time and I will not go along with it this time.”

Perrilloux stressed the Parish does not have a backup if South Central quits performing local code compliance.

Becnel said Council members risked the safety of local citizens without a working agreement with South Central.