Citizens angry with council over road work

Published 8:38 am Friday, April 22, 2016

An often-contentious city meeting on Tuesday stretched to over two hours long as numerous residents complained that planned street repairs didn’t include neighborhood streets, that the repairs were picked along racial lines and that Martin Luther King Jr. Drive was being excluded.

These complaints were not new, though for the first time Tuesday the threat of public boycott was voiced by former Bogalusa councilman Marvin Austin. Austin was upset because MLK Drive suffers from deep potholes and cracks and there is no immediate plan to fix the entire street. The former councilman, who is African-American, said he’d been in war zones and seen better streets there.

“If we can’t get our community to be respected then we might have to spend our money in other places,” he said, referring to black residents.

Austin added that he wouldn’t like to do that, but if the city didn’t fix the street, he would urge one.

Austin wasn’t alone in his complaints, and two citizens who complained about the street were not African-American.

Cindy Melancon, a co-owner of the Lee Finance Company at 334 MLK Drive, said she’s owned a business there since 1963. Melancon said she understands the street isn’t busy with traffic, but it is in such terrible shape that the few cars that do drive the street, including her own, drive on the sidewalks.

“If I get a ticket I’ll pay it, but I’m not going to tear my car up,” she said.

She said the street desperately needs some repair.

“It’s in horrible condition and it’s not right for our customers or the people who go up and down the street,” Melancon said.

She pointed out that there are other businesses on the street, including a barbershop and the Bogalusa Help Center food bank. Melancon asked for at least the two blocks that had businesses to get some attention.

During the meeting, Public Works Director James Hall said that the bids for the planned street repairs came in under budget, and those savings will go toward repairs on MLK Drive. Hall said he still needs to finalize plans with the engineer, but if the plan is approved, the city should have enough money to repair the 300 and 400 block of Martin Luther King. These blocks include the finance company.

However, Hall has previously said that a full fix for MLK Drive will require replacing sewer and water pipes beneath the street, and to do the job right would cost a bit over $3 million. The fixes Hall discussed Tuesday won’t address anything below the street, and Mayor Wendy Perrette pointed out that the fixes are temporary.

“That is only a Band-Aid,” she said. “And that Band-Aid is going to have to be ripped off, because that sewer system is sinking.”

A few residents were also concerned that the city is working with the parish to pave north Roosevelt Street. That street is a quiet residential street, but it is in bad shape and the popular Sweet Beulah Baptist Church is on the 1400 block of the street — a section that includes bad potholes, one of which has been filled in with loose rocks.

Theresa P. Keller, among others, was upset that the parish will do the work.

“Why is it that out of all the streets that you have pledged to overlay, that Sweet Beulah is the only one to be kicked out and kicked to the parish,” she asked.

Keller added that if the city doesn’t pay for the work, then the city leaders are mocking and ridiculing area residents.

However, Hall and Perrette said the parish is doing the work because it’s the cheaper option. Perrette has said repeatedly that she believes the city should focus its paving efforts on major traffic corridors and the road near the hospital. However, she said the parish, which has the equipment and the personnel to repair streets, has agreed to fix North Roosevelt if the city pays $3,000 for supplies. Perrette said if the parish hadn’t been able to fix Roosevelt, the city would have had to spend closer to $50,000.

Hall also pointed out that residents of Bogalusa pay parish taxes as well, so it is still local taxes at work.

Councilwoman Gloria Kates expressed concern that all the streets selected for repair — Verret/Rio Grande, West 5th, Avenue B to Avenue F, Plaza and some of Shriner’s Drive — are only in two districts.

Most of the streets are in District D, though part of Rio Grande and Shriner’s Drive is in District E.

Residents also complained of the perceived slight.

Patricia Keller asked the council, “What do the taxpayers of district A, B and C have to do to be worthy to get the services that the taxpayers in other districts are getting?”

Later in the meeting, councilman Brian McCree pointed out that in the future the city might, instead of paving five roads mostly in one district, pave a single road in each district.

However, despite the back and forth, the road repairs were all approved as they appeared on the agenda, although it was a split vote. McCree and Kates voted against the overlay plans.

This won’t be the last time city road maintenance will come up for discussion. At next month’s city meeting, the board will need to approve several November ballot measures. Those measures, if voted in, will continue the life of four existing taxes, one of which is a roads and parks tax.

Bogalusa residents have for years approved these taxes, though this year’s vote will make the sales tax permanent if it is approved.

That tax is a 1-cent city sales tax that brings in $2.4 million.

“It’s a big part of the city’s operation,” bond attorney David Wolf said.

Wolf explained that generally this tax comes up every five years, but if it passes in November, it will be made permanent.

“This will put it in line with all or almost all of your existing sales taxes from needing renewals periodically to making it permanent,” he said.

Next up will be a 10-year renewal on a 2.71-mill tax that generates $190,000 for the fire department. After that, residents will have to decide whether or not to vote for a second 2.71-mill tax for sewer, water, streets and parks.

Finally on the ballot will be a 3.62-mill tax for municipal services and salaries. This, too, will be a 10-year renewal.

If the board approves the resolution in May, these taxes will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The next board meeting will be May 3 at 5:30 p.m. at Bogalusa City Hall.

In other business:

• The council approved a resolution in support of a grant being sought by the Robert “Bob” Hicks Foundation for its planned civil rights museum.

• The council introduced an ordinance to amend an engineering contract.

• The council introduced an ordinance that will allow the mayor to enter into a contract with a demolition contractor to remove abandoned homes.

• The council introduced an ordinance that will allow the mayor to enter into an agreement with a company for obstruction removal at the airport.

• The council introduced an ordinance that will allow the mayor to enter into an agreement with a company for construction at the airport.

• The council approved an ordinance to allow the mayor to enter into a contract with Feliciana Welders for the Columbia Street Bridge water line replacement.

• The council approved an ordinance to allow the mayor to enter into a contract with Nobles Construction to roof the city hall annex.

• The council approved an ordinance to allow the mayor to enter into a contract with the successful bidder to provide a freezer in The Salvage Store at 209 Industrial Park.

• The council approved an ordinance to establish an adjudicated property program.

• The council approved an ordinance to sell adjudicated property to adjoining landowners.

• Council president Sherry Fortenberry spoke, addressing comments made by citizen Fate Ferrell in a previous city council meeting.

Ferrell had compared the Bogalusa City Council to government officials in Crystal City, Texas, who had been arrested for alleged bribery associated with an illegal gambling interest.

“I will not be discriminated against,” Fortenberry said. “If I am guilty of anything, it is going to church, reading my Bible, and trying to do the right thing for our city of Bogalusa. I do not gamble, nor do I take bribes.”