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Sunset Drainage board agrees to parish takeover

Kyle Barnett -   Jul 11, 2013

In an end to a struggle for self governance that has popped up annually over the past few years, the Sunset Drainage Districtís Board of Commissioners has voted to cede the district over to the control of St. Charles Parish.

The political structure was created 89 years ago to provide governance for levee construction and maintenance for the Sunset Drainage District levee, which protects around 5,000 people in Des Allemands, Bayou Gauche and Paradis.

Funding for the Sunset Drainage District has been steady over much of its lifespan, but has decreased over the past few decades.†

Richard Borden, vice president of the board of commissioners, said the district is currently in a dire financial situation and the board felt they had to turn over control as part of their duty.

"At this point in time we will run out of money on Oct. 1," he said. "To meet our commitment and do what we were sworn in to do, which is protect the people of this district, we are pretty much forced to give up the district to the parish."

Borden said the district was locally funded for more than 60 years.

"When the district was formed it was funded by revenues from the oil field here in Paradis which at one time was the largest in the country. And for many, many years there was no need for parish help and it operated on its own," he said. "After the early 90s we put in some additional work on the levee on Mud Lake and it kind of depleted most of our reserves."

The Mud Lake project cost the district around $1 million and oil field revenues continued to decrease requiring the district to receive a subsidy from the parish.

"We have since 1996 been receiving a subsidy from the St. Charles Parish government each year. Roughly $250,000-$300,000 that has allowed us to function as a district," Borden said.

However, for the past two years the St. Charles Parish Council has denied the subsidy.

"Starting with 2012, the parish government elected not to fund us and this was at the direction of the parish president," Borden said. "He indicated at that time that they wanted the Sunset Drainage District taken over by the Parish Council giving the parish control of all of the West Bank for progressing the West Bank levee system."

In addition, in 2011 a law was passed in the Louisiana legislature that would allow the Sunset Drainage District to be absorbed by the parish government at any time. It was later amended in 2012 to allow the district to cede themselves rather than having the parish take them over.

In March the Sunset Drainage District was thrown into turmoil when FEMA indicated they would no longer recognize the levee on their newly proposed flood maps and many area residents were quoted flood insurance rates in the tens of thousands of dollars under the Biggert-Waters Act. That led to stagnation in the local real estate market.

FEMA later indicated they would take into account structures that were not certified by the Corps of Engineers, which in turn led to a drive to repair parts of the district.

As part of this effort Councilman Paul Hogan authored an ordinance requesting $10 million in funding to correct problems within the Sunset Drainage Districtís levee system, but he later amended the ordinance to take out specific monetary requirements. A day later the district voted to turn themselves over to the parish government.

Of the Sunset Drainage Districtís five-member board of commissioners, there was only one vote against turning over control of the district. Glenn Gros, who has had the shortest tenure of any board member at one year, was the only vote against. He said although he voted against ceding control of the district he only did so because he did not think the district was procedurally ready to vote to give up control.

"I agree with the resolution and I am in favor of it," Gros said. "What I was in disfavor of was voting for it that night."

Gros said despite his opposition to voting so quickly he thinks it is time for the parish to take over.

"We are a 1924 organization that has served its useful life," he said. "There are apparent issues that we are not equipped to deal with. We canít deal with FEMA. We donít have a legal staff. With the complexities of today we are having to rely on the parish more and more and our time has come."

The Sunset Drainage District Board of Commissioners will hold a meeting on July 18 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at the courthouse in Hahnville. It may be their last meeting before they are scheduled to turn over control of the district to the parish in mid-August or early September.

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