Flush with millions, Jefferson Parish Council members fund pet projects; see breakdown

By Blake Paterson

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

May 14, 2023

Standing before a gymnasium full of angry residents at the Avondale Playground in October, Jefferson Parish Council member Byron Lee made a pledge.

“If you need uniforms, call my office,” he said. “If you need playground equipment, call my office. If you need repairs at this building, for whatever reason, call my office.”

The audience — who earlier in the night jeered at Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng’s proposed overhaul of the playground — burst into applause.

It wasn’t an empty promise. At a council meeting in December, Lee appropriated $3,576 to the Avondale Booster Club for cheerleading uniforms.

Lee’s largesse came courtesy of his council district discretionary account — a multi-million dollar fund that he can divvy up, largely as he sees fit.

Each of the seven Parish Council members controls such an account, giving them an extraordinary amount of government money to spend on pet projects — both big and small — throughout their districts, with few restrictions.

Those accounts got a major boost last month, when the council voted to give each of the five district council members an additional $12.5 million and the two at-large council members $1 million to spend at their discretion.

The infusion of cash was made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act, which sent $84 million in federal money to Jefferson Parish to help respond to and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The one-time funding couldn’t have come at a better time for council members, at least politically. With elections in October, all seven council members are mounting campaigns, and there are few better ways to curry favor with voters than spending money on their needs.

“To me, its almost like having a government-funded campaign fund,” said Mike Yenni, who was Jefferson Parish’s president from 2016 to 2020.

Unprecedented money
Jefferson Parish Council members have had access to discretionary funds for decades, but a series of recent windfalls have given them an unprecedented amount of money to spend.

Since taking office in January 2020, Lee has had the most money at his disposal: approximately $31.2 million, according to parish records.

He’s followed by Marion Edwards with $27.7 million; Deano Bonano with $27.6 million; Jennifer Van Vrancken with $19.8 million; Dominick Impastato with $14.2 million; and Scott Walker and Ricky Templet, with $1.8 million each.

The discretionary accounts are funded through a variety of revenue streams.

Each of the five district council members receive money from an occupancy tax on hotels and motels; licensing fees on off-track betting facilities; and revenues from video poker machines. Those dollars are divided among council members based on the percentage of the population in unincorporated Jefferson Parish they represent.

The three West Bank council districts — represented by Lee, Bonano and Edwards — also share in proceeds from the Boomtown Belle Casino in Harvey.

In 2015, the Parish Council voted to give each of the five council districts $5 million in settlement money from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, though Templet, who was then the District 1 Council member, dedicated the entirety of his split to coastal restoration.

And in 2021, each of the three West Bank council districts received an additional $10 million from the lease of West Jefferson Medical Center to LCMC.

Some of the funds have restrictions on how they can be spent. For instance, the hotel-motel tax dollars must be spent on tourism-related projects. And the hospital dollars must be used on West Bank health and fitness projects.

Drawing on his hospital funds, Edwards last year gave the city of Grenta $1.5 million to build a BMX bike track.

Lee set aside $2.9 million in hospital funds in January to build a monument off the West Bank Expressway near Ames Boulevard memorializing those who died from COVID-19.

Bonano plans to spend the bulk of his hospital funds building a parish natatorium, with a full-sized competition pool.

Compared to the five district council members, the two at-large council members have significantly less money to spend, even though they represent the entire parish. Each year, they receive $200,000 in property taxes to spend on economic development projects. And that’s it.

In January, Council member Scott Walker, an at-large member, dedicated the entirety of his annual economic development allocation to LCMC to buy a new ambulance to service Barataria, Crown Point and Lafitte.

ARPA plans
The infusion of cash from the American Rescue Plan has given council members a fresh set of funds to splurge on their districts.

Council member Jennifer Van Vrancken plans to spend all $12.4 million constructing a “campus for entrepreneurship, art, and technology” in Fat City that she’s calling the “EAT Fat City Center.” The center is to be built on a plot of land now occupied by an apartment complex, which the parish would purchase.

Council member Dominick Impastato has set aside $3.5 million to expropriate the Evergreen Plaza Inn, a hotel on Veterans Memorial Boulevard which he called a “haven for crime and vagrants and unsavory activity.” He wants to move Lafreniere Park’s administrative staff into the building.

Impastato has also set aside $2.2 million to renovate Muss Bertolino Playground in Kenner into a “tournament-quality facility” and $2.5 million for a new bike path along Soniat Canal behind David Drive from West Napoleon Avenue to Veterans and then east on Veterans to Downs Boulevard into Lafreniere Park. He said the bike path won’t interfere with traffic.

Walker set aside $215,000 of his funds to renovate the River Ridge Center on Jefferson Highway to accommodate 68 Head Start children.

Council member Deano Bonano said most of his funding will go to sewerage, drainage and water projects. He plans to spend $300,000 rehabbing a sewage station in Harahan and $149,000 repairing a water line in Old Jefferson.

Bonano is working on a list of projects, but said he’s in no rush to start spending.

“I’m not going to be one of those elected officials who runs out and spends all their discretionary monies just because they’re at the end of the term,” Bonano said.

Lee has set aside $1 million for a “Kids Splash Zone” at Johnny Jacobs Playground on the West Bank and $335,000 to renovate the concession stand at Kennedy Heights Playground.

Lee said when he was growing up on the West Bank, his coach had to call and scream at the parish recreation director just to get uniforms.

“That left an indelible mark on me,” he said. “I’m very generous when it comes to recreation and parks.”

Edwards said he hasn’t decided how he’ll spend his ARPA cash.

Thanks to a budgeting sleight of hand, the Parish Council won’t have to detail each of those expenditures to the federal government.

That’s because at their April 26 meeting, the Parish Council voted to spend all $84 million in ARPA funds on payroll. That freed up money from the General Fund, which they redistributed to their discretionary accounts.

The Parish Council also set aside $15 million for improvements at the Shrine on Airline in Metairie and $5 million for the Alario Center in Westwego.

In a letter last month, the Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans-based good government group, urged the Parish Council to institute a reporting mechanism so the public is aware of how those General Fund dollars are spent.

Jefferson Parish Inspector General Kim Chatelain said her office will keep tabs on how the General Fund dollars freed up by the ARPA funds are spent, much like it did with the BP settlement funds.

Wooing voters?
Parish Council members, for the most part, dismissed the notion that discretionary funds are an effective tool to woo voters.

“We can’t stop doing our job just because it’s an election year,” said Templet, who plans to dedicate his ARPA funds to land banking efforts.

Van Vrancken, who is challenging Templet for an at-large seat on the council, faced criticism from her colleagues in March after she attempted to spend $100,000 in discretionary funds on the city of Westwego — outside her district.

Van Vrancken said the move had nothing to do with election year politics.

The General Fund dollars freed up by the ARPA money must be spent within council members’ respective districts, per the ordinance approved last month, which also prohibits the money from being spent on recurring costs or salaries.

Van Vranken said she focuses on using discretionary dollars to improve residents’ quality of life, and pointed to her allocation of $3,094 last summer to the YMCA to provide swimming lessons and summer camps for foster children.

Impastato, who will challenge Walker for his at-large seat, said his spending habits won’t change.

“I think any elected official who thinks he or she is just going to spend taxpayer money and garner votes is sadly mistaken,” he said.

Still, Lee noted, it doesn’t hurt to have signs around your district touting the projects you funded.

“People see what I’m doing because they see all the signs,” he said.

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