Parish still has no plan in place to repay misspent taxpayer money

August 22, 2014 at 10:20 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Parish still has no plan in place to repay  misspent taxpayer money
Opinions vary on whether Parish President V.J. St. Pierre’s administration must find a way to repay or rectify a finding by the Louisiana Attorney General that they unconstitutionally provided $140,000 worth of free dumpsters to parish residents over a four-year period.

St. Pierre used the so-called “blight elimination program” as a part of his platform when he was running for parish president. After being elected, he put a program in place that provided dumpsters at no cost to residents who were tearing down blighted properties. From November 2009 until early 2013, on behalf of the parish, third party contractors provided dumpsters at a total cost of $140,975 for hauling away debris from 143 teardowns. The cost of the dumpster rentals ranged from as low as $450 to as much as $14,560 for one tear down.

The parish paid for all dumpster rentals. However, a Nov. 26, 2013 opinion by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office found that by using public funds for private projects, the dumpster program was unconstitutional. Thus, in the audit covering the 2013 fiscal year, the parish noted they are responsible for changing the way the money used to provide free dumpsters to residents and part of that includes reimbursement.

Despite first being notified nearly nine months ago that the program was unconstitutional, the parish has not designated a plan to recoup money from private property owners who benefitted from the expenditure of public funds.

The corrective action plan provided to the auditor by the St. Pierre administration does say a change is necessary due to the attorney general’s opinion, but fails to provide details for such a remedy regarding past funds.

Councilman Paul Hogan, who was one of four council members who called for the initial attorney general’s opinion, said he has made nine formal requests to St. Pierre asking how the parish administration intends on fixing the problem and reimbursing taxpayer funds that were used on the dumpsters, but he has yet to hear anything regarding a solid plan to address the issue.

“What I think they are doing is just trying to avoid it, not raise any questions and that it will go away,” he said.

Hogan points out that the latest attorney general’s opinion, rendered on July 14, restated that the parish is responsible for capturing taxpayer funds that go to pay for the dumpsters.

“It reiterates that the people [who receive dumpsters] have got to pay,” Hogan said.

That opinion was in response to a May 27 request by St. Pierre stating that it would cost the parish much more to provide a citation, court order and have the property removed by parish personnel rather than simply providing free dumpster rental.

In a June 12 email to the Parish Council, Buddy Boe, chief administrative officer for St. Charles Parish, added that recouping money from those who received the free dumpsters is likely impossible.

“In our opinion, the expenses associated with providing dumpsters in the past cannot be levied by SCP (St. Charles Parish) retroactively because a levy can only be placed through a court order - prior to work beginning - after normal procedures have been followed and within a window of 30 to 60 days,” he said.

Hogan said that the parish’s position as elucidated by Boe is weak.

“If you don’t want to collect the money you are in violation of the state constitution,” he said. “Just because I put myself in a position to where I can’t come back and collect that money is that OK?  This is a misuse of public funds.”

Council Chairwoman Julia Fisher-Perrier, who said she signed on for the initial attorney general opinion only at the behest of Hogan, said it is clear that the administration must take some action.

“I think it is all on the administration’s shoulders on how they are going to do it and when they are going to do it,” she said.

In the event the St. Pierre administration does not take the lead soon to bring the situation to a conclusion, Hogan has introduced an ordinance to be discussed at the Sept. 2 Parish Council meeting that petitions St. Pierre to secure repayment for the $140,975 spent on the blight elimination program.

“If you are not going to do something then we as a council need to do something,” Hogan said.

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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