St. Tammany officials want independent levee district

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, who has pushed hard in Washington, D.C., for construction of a storm-surge barrier at the Rigolets, wants the parish to secede from the regional flood-protection authority that has championed the project.

Under a bill filed for the upcoming legislative session by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, and endorsed by Brister, St. Tammany Parish would create its own levee district and withdraw from the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East, which encompasses the Lake Borgne Basin, Orleans and East Jefferson levee districts. State law also includes St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes in the same authority.

Brister has long advocated the construction of a barrier at the Rigolets to prevent storm surge from entering Lake Pontchartrain, a project that the authority also has advocated.

Despite that common ground, Brister said the parish’s highest priority in the legislative session starting next week is creating a new levee and drainage district that would end St. Tammany Parish’s association with the regional authority.

“We have not received a penny (from the authority) for any projects that we do in the parish,” Brister said last week. She conceded St. Tammany Parish has never passed a tax to help support the projects, but she said the parish is still neglected.

“We get lost,” she said. “Frankly, until just a few short years ago, St. Tammany was not considered a coastal parish.”

The parish’s shore areas were hard hit during recent storms and local officials have named flood protection as a key challenge facing the parish. The authority is not the body to face that challenge, Brister said.

The plan to break away from the flood-protection authority runs counter to efforts to take a more regional approach to flood protection, authority President Tim Doody said. One of the key goals in creating the authority was to group all the areas threatened by storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain under one body so they could more effectively work together on common issues, he said.

“It seems counter to the reform movement after (Hurricane Katrina),” Doody said, arguing all the communities around the lake “share a common enemy.”

“After Katrina, everybody said flood waters know no boundaries,” he said.

The Flood Protection Authority — East and a sister organization on the West Bank were created after the failures of the area’s flood-protection system during Katrina.

The goal was to replace the local levee boards, which were widely seen as inefficient, politically controlled groups that were not properly focused on maintaining the levees that defend the New Orleans region.

The East Bank authority has been at the center of a swirling controversy since it filed a lawsuit last year against 97 oil and gas companies, seeking reparations for damage allegedly done to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands by the companies. Since the suit was filed, the authority has battled with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposes the suit, and his administration has been seeking to gain control of appointments to the authority’s board. The Legislature likely will take up a bill this session that would give governors more authority in the appointing process.

Brister said the controversy over the lawsuit had nothing to do with her desire to get out of the authority. Rather, she said, it was simply a matter of gaining local control that would allow the focus to be on St. Tammany Parish.

Under Donahue’s bill, the new levee district would not encompass the whole parish but just the parish’s “coastal zone,” which generally corresponds to areas south of Interstates 10 and 12, Brister said.

Any taxes would have to be approved by voters in the district and would go directly to projects in the district, she said.

Donahue also said the bill has nothing to do with the authority’s lawsuit. Instead, he said, its goal is to get more local control for flood-protection projects and potentially tap into federal money for those efforts.

“The parish, as represented by the president, doesn’t feel they’re getting much if anything out of the levee district they’re in,” Donahue said, noting that were it not for the south-shore levee breaches, the massive flooding Katrina brought to Slidell would have been the most significant damage from that storm.

Doody said the authority’s board has encouraged St. Tammany Parish to form a levee district that would fall under the flood-protection authority. That would allow taxes to be put in place to fund projects on the north shore, he said. Each of the authority’s three levee districts already levies a property tax, and that money is spent within those individual districts.

Having two entirely separate boards wouldn’t necessarily mean the groups would be at odds — for example, both would likely continue to fight for the Rigolets surge barrier — but it could create competition for funding, Doody said.

If the bill becomes law, Doody said, he hopes his authority and the new district could continue to work together.

“Having a levee district over there and having a levee district on our side of the lake doesn’t mean we wouldn’t work together to fight that battle,” he said.

Unlike the authority, which by law has strict qualifications for seven of its nine board members, appointees to the proposed St. Tammany levee district board would be nominated by elected officials and appointed by the governor. Under Donahue’s bill, the mayors of Madisonville, Slidell and Mandeville each would nominate three people, and the governor would appoint one from each list. Each legislator whose district includes part of the levee district also would get a nomination, and two seats would be filled from a nomination list provided by the parish government.

Brister insisted the appointment process wouldn’t make the levee board subject to political whim.

“They are not political,” she said. “It’s not easy to find people that will sit on these boards.”

One reason for not requiring appointees to have professional engineering experience is the experience of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, which have their own levee districts, Brister said. “They said, ‘Don’t restrict yourself,’ ” she said.

Finding qualified people for the Flood Protection Authority — East board has at times been difficult, despite a much broader area from which to draw, she said.

The mayors of Slidell and Mandeville said they had not been consulted on the legislation.

Both cities were hit hard during Hurricane Isaac; in Mandeville, a wall of water poured over the seawall and into the city’s older section. Since that time, flood protection has been a hot-button political issue there, and last year the city commissioned a study aimed at finding ways to protect against another flood.

An oft-heard political maxim in Mandeville is that with more levees going up on the south shore, the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain will see greater and greater surges.

However, a study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Isaac found the south-shore levees had no impact on the flooding in Madisonville and Mandeville and increased flooding in Slidell by only a tenth of a foot

While the mayors of both cities agreed with Brister that the parish has often been neglected in regional flood-protection projects, both also said they had not seen the legislation and therefore could not comment on it.