The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office recently ruled that free dumpsters provided by St. Charles Parish for the demolition of blighted property should have been paid for by those property owners.
The ruling was requested by Councilman Paul Hogan, who took issue with the parish’s provision of free dumpsters for 143 properties from November 2009 until earlier this year at a cost of $140,975.
The dumpster project was the culmination of promises St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre made to clean up the area when he was running for parish president. In fact, from 1994 to 2008, only 11 homes were torn down in the parish. Since St. Pierre took office, 143 homes have been demolished.
“When I first got in there I wanted to make an immediate impact and let people know I was serious about cleaning the parish up, so we kind of pushed the issue a little bit,” St. Pierre said.
According to the ruling by the attorney general, St. Charles Parish provided free delivery, use and pickup of dumpsters to owners whose properties were deemed blighted. The ruling compared the free dumpster service with two precedents in which governmental entities improperly provided public funds for work on private property.
Hogan said he felt the ruling was common sense.
“That’s taking public money and giving it to private individuals,” he said.
The parish will now be obligated to bill property owners who have received dumpster services to try and recover expenses that varied from as low as $450 to as much as $14,560.
“The only thing we did wrong was we didn’t try to recover the reimbursement for hauling the stuff off,” St. Pierre said. “We are going back to evaluate that to see how far legally we can go back or if we can even go back right now.”
It appears that the parish will have to pay additional fees to try and capture those funds.
“We have to hire a lawyer to go file legal documents in the Clerk of Court’s Office. He’s going to have to hire a curator, that’s a minimum of $900 just to go back and do research on all the owners to let them know we are going to file a lien on the property. To file a lien is $45 to $50,” St. Pierre said.
In addition, St. Pierre said lien obligations are fulfilled only about 10 percent of the time.
Buddy Boe, St. Charles Parish’s chief administrative officer, said the dumpster program was set up in such a way as to avoid those court costs, which they did not think they would be able to recoup.
“In the past, the parish would deem something blighted. If the resident did not take it down, (the parish) would go in with its own crew and tear it down, process the legal fees and place the lien. That is sort of the court non-cooperative way,” he said.
The parish found that going through the court system to take down a blighted property cost the parish an average of $3,537 per home. By entering into a cooperative agreement and providing the free dumpsters with the home owner, they could shave that cost down to $986 per home.
In all, St. Pierre estimates that the parish saved $365,000 by providing the free dumpsters, but because the dumpsters were provided improperly those savings are now in jeopardy.
While residents received the dumpsters for free, the parish had to foot the bill. When the parish first entered into the dumpster program, they paid much higher rates to one of their vendors.
Since 2009, dumpster services have been provided by two companies, Bayou Home Improvements Inc. and Scott-Trist Container Service.
Kenner-based Scott-Trist Container Service contracted with the parish in 2012 and 2013. They appear to have charged a flat $450 daily fee for dumpsters with their highest charge for their services being $1,800.
Bayou Home Improvements Inc., who contracted with the parish from 2009 to 2011, appears to have charged varying rates for the dumpsters that routinely neared $4,000 per job and in one case went as high as $14,560.
Altogether, Bayou Home Improvements Inc. was paid $109,455 for 51 rentals, while Scott-Trist was paid $31,520 for 53 rentals.
Bobby Donaldson, chief operating office for the parish, said the variability in prices may have had to do with how large the structures were.
“There was a cost per container and I think there was a difference in the cost per hauling,” he said. “It depends on how many containers and it depends on the size of the building.”
Boe said the difference in price may have been the driving factor behind the parish switching vendors.
“That would explain the shift kind of halfway through and possibly realizing there could be a savings and switching firms,” he said.