Locals:Leave us alone

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 17, 2006

VIDALIA &8212; Local commissioners hope changes to the state&8217;s levee system don&8217;t breach New Orleans.

Legislators are debating levee board consolidation this week at the state&8217;s second post-hurricane special session, but in the local Fifth District, commissioners are of one mind on the matter: Leave us out of it.

&8220;We&8217;re concerned they&8217;ll include us and we don&8217;t deserve it because we run our business like it&8217;s supposed to be run,&8221; Fifth District President Reynold Minsky said.

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The Fifth District oversees 355 miles of levee maintenance in Concordia, East Carroll, Madison and Tensas parishes.

The plan that causes them the most concern is House Bill 77.

The bill calls for every levee district in the state to be abolished and their funds and equipment moved under the aegis of the Louisiana Department of Transportation.

Minsky said moving everything to Baton Rouge would only create distance and problems between the authority and the local riverside landowners it buys right-of-way from.

&8220;Can you imagine these (local) landowners working with the DOT in Baton Rouge?&8221; Minsky said. &8220;That would be disastrous.&8221;

The bill, authored by Rep. Gary Beard, R-Baton Rouge, was debated Thursday and doesn&8217;t seem to have much chance at becoming law.

Different legislation before the Senate deals with consolidation of only the levee districts in southeastern Louisiana. Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Walter Boasso, R- Chalmette, calls for the creation of a single authority to cover both the east and west banks of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans region.

The bill has the backing of Gov. Kathleen Blanco but faces challenges from west bank legislators who want their own centralized board.

Sen. Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro, said the northern districts would not be consolidated.

&8220;Our levees are not included in any of that (Senate legislation), neither the Mississippi River nor the Tensas River basin,&8221; Ellington said.

&8220;What we&8217;re talking about is hurricane protection.&8221;

The levee boards have come under heavy criticism since Hurricane Katrina; the consolidation effort is seen as a way to wrest power from the appointed commissioners and have professionals looking after the levees.

Local board members feel that criticism is unwarranted and unfair.

First of all, they say, all they do is maintain the levees &8212; the planning, engineering and construction are all handled by the Army Corps of Engineers.

&8220;All the money goes through the Army Corps of Engineers, they design the project and we sell it to Congress,&8221; Minsky said. &8220;All we do is buy right of way in our district.&8221;

Fifth District Commissioner Barry Maxwell said he and his fellow members act as a liason between the corps and the landowners.

&8220;The levee&8217;s in my front yard, most of us live on or close to it,&8221; Maxwell said. &8220;Who can better serve?&8221;

Commissioners, who are appointed to their posts, receive $67.50 a day allowance, plus travel expenses, for days they attend board meetings or work on levee business. No more than five per diem payments may be received in one month.