Mayor-President Kip Holden and his staff kicked off the first of seven informational meetings on Tuesday to address questions about the city-parish’s two most expensive capital projects: the massive sewer improvement project and the Green Light Plan of road improvements.
Generally, residents attending the meeting seemed pleased with the progress of the Green Light Plan, but the administration was put on the defensive as frustrated residents questioned the ballooning cost of the parish sewer program and problems at the North Waste Water Treatment Plant.
About 20 residents attended the meeting in the Independence Park Recreation Center, some carrying stacks of paper containing budgets, old articles, campaign finance reports and other research to back up their questions.
Jim Atteberry, a former DPW assistant chief engineer, decried the $1.4 billion cost of a sewer improvement plan that was first estimated at $618 million under former Mayor-President Bobby Simpson’s administration.
“When it reached $1.2 billion, why didn’t anyone say, ‘What the hell is going on with this?’ ” Atteberry said.
He criticized Holden’s administration for expanding the sewer project beyond what he said is necessary.
Public Works Director William Daniel said the original estimates were made before there was ever any serious investigation of how bad the sewer system actually was.
“They were bad estimates,” he said.
Daniel also said improvements in the plan are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Phillip Lillard, a member of the Baton Rouge Tea Party, held a flier that read, “The BRTP wants an audit of the sewer system costs — not just more meetings.”
The sewer plan, called the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program, was put in place by a 2002 federal consent decree to address the parish’s crumbling sewer system. It is funded by a half-cent sales tax and monthly sewer fees. The program includes 108 projects, 22 of which have been completed, 48 are under construction and 38 that are being designed.
The program has a federally mandated deadline for completion of Dec. 31, 2014.
Michael Ellis, CH2M Hill project manager for the sewer program, said the city-parish has 1,600 miles of sewer line — almost 80 percent of which will be rehabilitated when the project is completed.
Patty Domingue, a Sherwood Forest Citizens Association board member, questioned why toilets aren’t flushing and bathtubs aren’t draining in her neighborhood despite the construction.
Ellis responded that the sewer program consists of several phases including fixing pipes, improving pump stations and creating storage areas. All must be in place to see the full effect of the improvements, he said.
“They see us do all this work, and then it rains and it’s like we wasted all this money because it’s worse than before,” Daniel explained. “But the reason is that we fixed the breaks in the pipes so you don’t have raw sewage leaking into the ground anymore, so when it rains, it overflows.”
Carole Anne Brown, a Southdowns resident, asked whether the three-year deadline extension for the sewer plan being sought by the city-parish meant that projects in her neighborhood would be pushed back.
Ellis responded that generally only projects in the “outlying” parts of the parish would have projects delayed by the proposed extension.
The extension allows the city-parish to slow down its overloaded construction schedule, but it also could provide additional money for a relocation of residents living next to the smelly North Waste Water Treatment Plant in Scotlandville.
About five residents of the Scotlandville neighborhood attended the meeting and spoke with growing emotion as they described the smell and flies surrounding their neighborhood.
The residents sometimes directed their anger at Holden, who lives in Scotlandville, but a little further out from the plant.
Holden, who sat quietly behind a table for most of the meeting, calmly deflected criticism from the residents and resisted engaging in a back-and-forth debate.
Greg Mitchell, a spokesman for the residents, was temporarily escorted out of the meeting after sparring with Daniel over his negative attitude toward the residents.
“It’s because you come to every meeting and disrupt it,” Daniel said, responding to Mitchell’s accusation.
Dennis Vidrine, president of the Goodwood Property Owners Association, praised the success of Green Light Plan projects in his district and asked for traffic calming initiatives to be put into place on streets off of Jefferson Highway that are receiving heavier traffic.
Asked by another resident if the Green Light Plan would address traffic light synchronization, Chief Traffic Engineer Ingolf Partenheimer responded that many of the lights are decades old and are being replaced as funds are available.
He said about 50 percent of the parish’s traffic signals are old technology, which means they can’t be synchronized.
The Green Light Plan was approved by voters in 2005 and is the first road bond program of its kind since 1964. It is funded through a half-cent sales tax that will lapse in 2030.
To date, 26 Green Light Plan projects have been completed and another six are under construction.
The full cost of the Green Light Plan is estimated between $550 million and $600 million, said Michael Songy, program manager for the plan, of which about $438 has already been invested.
The schedule and location for the rest of the meetings are as follows:
MAY 31: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Jones Creek Library, 6222 Jones Creek Road.
JUNE 5: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Dr. Leo S. Butler Center, 950 E. Washington St.
JUNE 7: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Gloryland Baptist Church, 2575 Michelli Drive.
JULY 9: 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Zachary Library, 1900 Church St. (La. 64).
JULY 21: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Bluebonnet Library, 9200 Bluebonnet Blvd.
JULY 23: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Greenwell Springs Library, 11300 Greenwell Springs Road.