Officials: BP funds needed

With the budgets of several Jefferson Parish municipalities tightening due to slumping sales tax revenue and other expenses, city officials are hoping that a potential settlement with BP due to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster could ease some of their economic pain.

Westwego, Gretna, Harahan, Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte are seeking settlements from BP due to economic damage caused by the 2010 oil leak. The cities initially banded together in 2011 to sue the oil company in federal court, and now they are seeking the settlements through the “presentment” process outlined in the federal Oil Pollution Act, said attorney David Colvin, whose firm is representing the cities in the lawsuit and settlement.

Jefferson Parish and the city of Kenner have a separate lawsuit and settlement procedure pending against the oil giant, and they are being represented by Gaudry, Ranson, Higgins and Gremillion, LLC of Gretna.

Colvin said presentations were made to BP right before Christmas based on economic studies completed by economist and former University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan. Presentations were made for Westwego, Gretna and Harahan, but those for Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte are still pending because of the complexity of their claims, he said.

Although Gretna, Westwego and Harahan might not seem like obvious claimants against BP, Colvin said that the oil leak had a ripple effect on the economies of the communities. Back in 2010, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office encouraged local governments to seek individual claims for lost taxes, royalties, rents and fees.

Westwego Mayor Johnny Shaddinger noted that his city’s popular seafood market saw a steep decline in business because of the oil leak, which hurts the city’s tax revenues. When the disaster occurred, sellers at the market saw a shortage of local oysters, shrimp and crabs, and even when they had products to sell, people were leery of making purchases. He added that several secondary businesses who service the fishing industry also suffered.

“Our whole community was impacted by this,” Shaddinger said.

Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said that given his community’s dependence on the commercial fishing industry, the oil leak was a huge problem. When fishermen couldn’t work, it injured the rest of the area’s businesses because the fishermen didn’t have money to spend. It also hurt charter fisherman and others dependent on the tourism industry. Kerner said his area needs some help in order to rebound.

“What we’re looking for is any help that we can get, any kind of funding to repair that (damage) and provide services for the people,” Kerner said. “Whatever we can get to try to help the residents in Lafitte.”

Colvin declined to state exactly how much each municipality is seeking, and Shaddinger declined to provide that information as well. Harahan Mayor Provino Mosca said his city initially requested $5.2 million but now is looking for $8 million. Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris said his city is seeking between $13 million and $41 million depending on the figures used. Colvin said BP will review the cities’ claims, and then he hopes they will negotiate a fair settlement. If that doesn’t happen, the cities would have to pursue a lawsuit, he said.

“I don’t think they’re going to write a check for what we presented in our presentation, but that would be nice,” Colvin said. “You have to think about the economic impact the oil spill had on the economy.”

Although the parish and cities are making claims for economic damage cause by the oil leak, in some ways the disaster had a positive impact. The influx of workers filled hotel rooms and also boosted sales tax revenues in some areas. For example, the Gretna Police Department allowed BP to use its rescue boat, mobile command unit and several officers during the leak, and generated nearly $700,000 for the city.

Harris said he’d like to see any settlement dedicated to infrastructure improvements in the city.

Jefferson Parish President John Young has regularly said that the combination of the oil leak and hurricane recovery helped shield the parish from some of the harshest effects of the national economic slump. However, Young also said that several areas of the parish are still reeling from the oil leak’s impact, and a claim would go a long way to making those areas whole.

“A lot of people lost their jobs and their livelihoods,” Young said. “We don’t know what the long-term effect is going to be from the spill.” The Jefferson Parish School Board, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and city of New Orleans also have lawsuits pending against BP.

Tyler Gamble, a communications manager for New Orleans, said the city also plans to present a claim to BP but would not discuss the pending litigation.