Engineering firm’s hiring rankles some on Livingston council

Several Livingston Parish Council members and Parish President Layton Ricks continue to be at odds over the parish’s road overlay program, weeks after the issue flared up at a council meeting.

At issue is whether Ricks has the authority to hire an engineer for the project without council approval. The squabbling began when the council began discussing the parish’s 2013 road overlay project at its Aug. 22 meeting.

Ricks told council members he had hired BKI Engineering of New Orleans to examine the roads for the project. Several council members took offense, saying Ricks blindsided them by not telling the council he had hired, or even was considering hiring, the firm.

A month later, the fight over the contract rages on.

Both sides have argued over whether the parish’s home rule charter allows Ricks to hire the engineer without council approval.

The charter says the parish president can sign contracts for projects and services specifically identified in the parish’s approved budget, “or as specifically identified by ordinance.” It says projects not identified in the budget have to go to the council for approval.

A parish ordinance has similar language about contracts.

The unanswered question is whether the project at issue is budgeted or unbudgeted.

Ricks said Friday that there’s no clear answer to that question.

He said the parish has already collected tax dollars dedicated to parish road projects, including the overlay project. But the project can’t move forward, Ricks said, until the council votes to formally dedicate funds to the project.

“It’s a chicken and the egg argument with this one,” Ricks said.

Council Chairman Marshall Harris said Friday the project is not budgeted and therefore Ricks cannot sign a contract for it without council approval.

“Until we do a budget amendment, it’s not budgeted right now,” he said.

Harris, who has served on the council since 1996, said the contracts for the parish’s annual road overlay project have always gone to the council for approval in the past.

“You have to work together, for transparency,” Harris said.

Ricks said the contract is legitimate and was sent to parish attorney Chris Moody for review before it was signed.

“We can tweak it if there are concerns,” Ricks said. “But we do have a good, solid, valid contract.”

Moody has said the charter is unclear as to whether Ricks had to submit the contract for approval.

Harris said he simply wanted to see requests for proposals to find the best quotes for the project and possibly save the parish some money. He said the parish usually spends about $300,000 per mile on road overlay projects, as opposed to about $180,000 in Tangipahoa Parish.

“We’re trying to make sure our money goes as far as it can,” he said.

Ricks has said the price for the contract was fair.

Councilman Jim Norred has also been critical of Ricks, saying the charter clearly states that contracts for unbudgeted projects must be approved by the council and that requests for proposals would have saved the parish money.

Norred could not be reached for comment Friday.

Councilman Chance Parent, in an interview Friday, raised a number of issues about the BKI Engineering contract, which he said he received last week.

Parent in January drafted a parish procedural manual, which the council approved, for capital improvement projects such as the road overlay program. Parent said Ricks is not following that manual.

Parent said the BKI contract calls for the parish to reimburse expenses for copies, mylars and faxes, among other expenses. He said such expenses usually are the responsibility of the engineer.

Parent also said the contract calls for a $20 per day cost for engineers to use iPads on site and requires the parish to put BKI on its liability insurance.

The contract also dictates a higher up-front payment — about $350,000 — than required in the manual, Parent said.

“I want to get the best bang for our buck, and that’s why I put that procedural manual in place,” Parent said. “There’s no gray area. We have procedures that have to be followed.”

Ricks said he’s willing to meet with the council about their issues with the contract and already has a meeting set next week with Parent and Norred.

The debate comes as the council is forming a commission to examine changing the parish’s home rule charter to clear up what have been called “gray areas” concerning the president’s and council’s authorities.