Jefferson Parish council puts brakes on new floodplain manager post

Jefferson Parish President John Young’s plan to create a new position designed to oversee the parish’s hazard mitigation and floodplain management programs has hit a snag, after the Jefferson Parish Council expressed some concern over the cost for the proposal.

The board refused to approve funding needed to appoint Michelle Gonzalez as the parish’s new director of Floodplain Management and Hazard Mitigation after Councilmen Chris Roberts and Elton Lagasse expressed concern about how the position was being organized. Young announced last week that he’d offered the position to Gonzalez, who works in the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness as the state’s liaison for hazard mitigation.

Roberts and Lagasse both said when they discussed the position with the administration, they thought it would replace the position currently held by Paula Blackwell, the parish’s floodplain manager. However, what Young is proposing is that Gonzalez supervises Blackwell and anyone else in the office.

“Because of all the issues we had with elevation, we decided to beef up the department,” Young said.

But council members said that’s a shift from what they expected, and it’s more expensive than they projected. Roberts said he thought the change would only cost $10,000 to $15,000, while Lagasse said he was under the impression that the change would cost the parish nothing.

“My understanding was that we were bringing someone new in, and they were making it a director level position. Now I’m understanding that we’re actually creating a new position on top of the position that already exists,” Roberts said.

The ordinance the council approved in December does state that the new director would “supervise and manage” the department and potentially assign work duties to employees. It also sets the pay scale at executive level 16.

Part of the problem with removing Blackwell is that her position is guided by the parish’s Civil Service rules, and she cannot be terminated the same way an at-will employee can be terminated. Blackwell took over as the parish’s floodplain manager in 2010 after former manager Tom Rodrigue retired. She previously served as Rodrigue’s second-in-command.

During the board meeting, Young and Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Cox seemed surprised by the council’s reluctance to move forward with funding the project, noting repeatedly that this issue had been discussed with the council before it moved forward.

In a statement after the meeting, Cox noted that the council already approved the salary range for Gonzalez’s position and established her job duties. The parish was proposing a $135,000 total budget for the department with $115,000 dedicated to salaries and benefits.

Roberts said his main issue is determining whether this is a duplicate position or one that will replace an existing one. Cox said the administration will work through that issue with the council.

“The administration will work with the council to answer any questions and resolve any issues its members may have regarding this essential new department,” Cox wrote.

Gonzalez is a certified floodplain manager and has overseen roughly $500 million in projects in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish geared towards reducing flooding and flood damage with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office.

Gonzalez’s new job would require her to make certain that the parish is complying with FEMA guidelines along with those set by state and federal agencies. The position is of particular importance as the National Flood Insurance Program finalizes new flood insurance rate maps for the parish and tries to secure funding to minimize flooding throughout the parish.