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Parish president seeks $150K professional services bump; 2 St. John Councilmen want to know why

LAPLACE — St. John the Baptist Parish Council members are expected to vote Tuesday on President Natalie Robottom’s request to amend a professional services contract with Digital Engineering, perhaps finally putting to rest a controversy that has been simmering for several months.

The vote would come two weeks after Council members voted by a 7-2 margin to approve an ordinance adding $150,000 for professional services to the budget.

At the center of the dispute is the amount of money being paid to Digital Engineering, which is located in Kenner, and the firm that at least two Council members believe will receive the lion’s share of the increased funding.

Robottom and Chief Financial Officer Robert Figuero Jr. insist the money paid to Digital and other firms is required because the parish is operating without a utilities director, and many of his responsibilities have fallen to Figuero.

“I have three specific projects on my table right now that I’m doing now that (former utilities director Blake Fogleman) is gone,” Figuero said. “I need additional help.”

Councilman Larry Snyder and Figuero repeatedly sparred on a number of issues during the course of the nearly one-hour dialogue, but much of the discussion surrounded a line item of professional fees the CFO provided for the councilman several days earlier.

“To me this is a smokescreen,” Snyder said of the list, which contains a detailed line item list of how $465,000 dedicated to professional services for the year is to be spent.

The list contains such items as payroll services, backflow prevention services, drug screening, background verifications, security services and trash collection.

Along with Digital, Robottom is specifically requesting the funding for Stantec, Munis and Tyler Technology for a variety of services, including support and update licensing.

“I see exactly what is going on with this,” Snyder added. “This satisfied me as to what I wanted but I’m still not understanding it. (The entire line item) is an ambiguous line item because you can put anything you want in there.”

The focus of the debate then shifted primarily to Digital and its contract with the parish.

Figuero said the parish has paid Digital about $60,000 annually during the past five years but re-emphasized additional services are needed following Fogleman’s departure.

At one point, it was suggested the matter could have been easily resolved by Robottom replacing Fogleman, to which the parish president replied it was her decision in her role as parish president not to.

Snyder said from his perspective the additional services for Digital are simply “the same thing as in the original contract.”

But Figuero noted because of the vacant director’s position, Digital’s work has expanded in scope and time.

“Unfortunately, they are not going to do this for free,” he said “So we have to expand their contract.

“We are asking Digital to take on project management. The intent is not to give them extra dollars.”

There was also a discussion as to why C.J. Savoie Consulting Engineering Services of Paincourtville, which is on retainer with the parish, could not assume many of Fogleman’s responsibilities.

Robottom said Digital’s role includes managing grants and loan-funded projects that the firm secured for the parish. She said Digital is responsible for seeing each project through to completion, including securing reimbursements.

“(Savoie) does not manage grant or loan projects but they are our set of eyes over our projects,” she said. “That is why you see (both firms) working on some of the same projects.

“We know we are going to need additional help for additional services (but) we are not duplicating services.”

Robottom and Figuero said Fogleman’s annual salary of $93,000 plus his annual car allowance of $4,800 have been shifted into professional services to help cover some of the additional cost.

“I can see this camouflage; I know how I feel about this,” Snyder said.

Snyder and Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. voted against amending the ordinance.

The issue is scheduled for address at the finance committee meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the new government complex in LaPlace.

Council members are also expected to discuss Councilman Larry Sorapuru Jr.’s request to cancel the Andouille Festival for financial reasons.

— By Richard Meek