Cleanup fallout shaping election

Battles over road funds and the Gustav debris cleanup have led to a hot race for Livingston Parish president.

Former Denham Springs City Councilman Layton Ricks and former Livingston Parish Planning Director Donald Burgess are challenging incumbent Mike Grimmer, who has had a stormy second term.

A literal storm — Hurricane Gustav — contributed to the harsh political winds.

After that storm, Grimmer questioned the propriety of some of the cleanup work. He subsequently halted the cleanup and refused to accept and disburse federal payments until the Federal Emergency Management Agency inspected and approved the work.

FEMA eventually denied more than $50 million of the parish’s cleanup costs. The contractor has sued the parish demanding payment.

A majority of Livingston Parish Council members, who have been at odds with Grimmer over cleanup decisions and other issues, hired an attorney to appeal FEMA’s denial of payment.

Ricks, who worked for one of the firms that monitored the work, said the parish would have a better chance of winning the appeal if he becomes parish president.

“I am willing to work for the appeal and not against it,” said Ricks, adding he wouldn’t “be throwing up roadblocks” to the parish’s appeal.

Grimmer said he blocked acceptance and dispersal of the federal money to protect the parish.

He said he wants the issue resolved now rather than having FEMA do an audit of the work later and demand its money back after the parish already had paid the contractors.

Grimmer maintains that if FEMA denies the appeal and finds the contractor didn’t do its job properly, the parish shouldn’t owe the contractor anything and should win the suit filed against the parish by International Equipment Distributors.

Should the parish lose the suit, it would have to pay the contractor a small amount at a time, because it doesn’t have the money to do otherwise, he said.

Ricks said he will follow the parish attorney’s legal advice on the IED suit if the FEMA appeal fails.

“I want those people paid, but I would have to abide by the law,” he said. “The parish doesn’t have that kind of money lying around.”

Burgess said unlike Grimmer and Ricks he was not involved with the cleanup, but said the issue needs to be resolved.

Burgess said the parish also needs to put in place a written plan on how to deal with the cleanup from the next storm.

Ricks said he would put a plan in place that heavily involves the parish’s director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness.

“It will be hard to get a contractor to come in behind this debacle,” Ricks said of the Gustav cleanup fight.

Grimmer said he already had the parish’s debris removal manual re-written and approved by FEMA and the state.

He said the parish will depend more on its Department of Public Works rather than depending so much on contractors to monitor the cleanup work.

Even before Gustav hit on Labor Day in 2008, dust storms had developed between Grimmer and a majority of the council over paving gravel roads and over other road issues.

The council has questioned Grimmer’s use of money from the parish road tax to pay the salaries and benefits of parish Department of Public Works employees.

An auditor hired by the council to examine the issue determined it is legal to use the dedicated sales tax to pay public works employees involved with the road program, but Grimmer’s opponents have questioned the policy.

“The DPW workers need to be moved back under the general fund and the road tax money used for overlaying roads,” Ricks said.

Burgess agreed the road tax money should be used to overlay roads; that’s what voters passed it to do, the former planning director said.

He said the parish’s general fund shouldn’t be used to pay for DPW workers’ salaries and benefits.

Grimmer said DPW workers are important to the maintenance of the roads; however, he said he, too, would like to pay them from the general fund.

The problem, Grimmer said, is there is not enough money in the general fund to pay DPW workers.

Mandated expenses, such as operating the jail and paying to house prisoners out of the parish because of lack of space, are eating up the general fund, he said.

Grimmer said he would like to see more money spent on roads and thinks that will happen as sales taxes rise.

But Grimmer said he is opposed to the way the Parish Council has spent money on paving gravel roads and what amounts to driveways instead of focusing on the parish’s road priority list.

On that point, Grimmer’s opponents in the parish president’s race may be closer to his position than to that of some council members.

“I am not for overlaying driveways and parking lots,” Ricks said.

He said he believes that gravel roads that are in the parish’s road system should be blacktopped, but they should be given a lower priority than heavily traveled roads that are in need of repair.

“I think we need a priority list like it was originally set up,” Ricks said.

Burgess made similar comments and also said he is opposed to splitting the parish’s road money among the nine council members and allowing them to choose what roads to overlay in their districts.

“I think we need to consider the parish as a whole,” Burgess said. “If you get into the little domains of each councilman, you are back in the old police jury program.”

That doesn’t mean leaving out the more rural eastern side of the parish, but it means selecting the roads that benefit the whole parish the most, he said.

Grimmer said the parish’s engineers should come up with a priority list that should be the basis for the work that is done.

“I’ve never agreed with dividing the road money nine ways,” Grimmer said.

Even worse, he said, is for a bloc of council members to cut out important roads in another member’s district just because that faction has the votes and can “stack the table.”

Asked what can be done to improve the relationship between the council and the parish president, Grimmer said it may take a change in who sits on the council. All nine council districts also have races on Oct. 22.

Ricks said, if elected, he will have an open-door policy for council members.

“If we can discuss issues, we will start resolving those issues regardless of who is on the council,” Ricks said. “When you disagree, keep it on the issues and don’t make it personal.”

Burgess said he thinks the relationship can be changed by open discussions between the parish president and the council.

“Whatever differences there are, let’s get them over with,” he said. “Aren’t we on the same team?”