Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – At a time when Louisiana is slashing health care and higher education to make up for a budget shortfall of more than $1.6 billion, officials are looking to cut anything they consider unnecessary spending.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, is going after travel expenses on the regional flood protection authority for the east bank that was created to provide better oversight of flood protection systems.
“Whenever you have boards and commissions whose travel costs are beyond the norm it raises a red flag,” said Morrell.
One commissioner on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, engineer Ricardo Pineda, the chief of floodplain management for California's Dept. of Water Resources, flies in from the west coast for the board's monthly meetings.
His travel expenses for 2009 and 2010 were $20,260.07.
Due to those travel costs, at a time when Louisiana has a budget crisis, Morrell says he has told Gov. Bobby Jindal that he will not vote to reappoint Pineda to the flood authority in the coming legislative session.
“If we're going to tell people, you know, ‘Teachers, you’re not getting a pay raise. Civil service workers in state government, you’re getting fired,’ we can’t have people who have costs above the norm,” he said, “because we can’t rationalize to people why are this guy's flights more important than your job.”
Pineda's fellow commissioners say the California engineer has specialized expertise that's crucial to the flood authority.
“He has a tremendous working knowledge of the Corps (of Engineers) and all of their policies and procedures and how we can get things included in to certain programs,” said Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East.
“I think potentially that expertise regarding flood control could be found in Louisiana,” countered Morrell.
An examination of travel expenses reveals the flood authority is also flying in two other commissioners from out of state for board meetings.
Geologist George Losonsky lives in Baton Rouge, but sometimes flies in from jobs out of state for board meetings -- at taxpayer expense. In all, taxpayers paid $8,417.64 for his 2009 and 2010 travel.
Also, historian/writer John Barry lives in New Orleans, but sometimes - at taxpayer expense - flies in from Washington, D.C., where he spends several months a year doing research for books.
In all, the public footed a $17,883 bill for his travel for 2009 and 2010.
“If they’re out of town working and we need them to attend a board meeting, I don't think it's fair to ask them to pay those expenses,” said Doody.
“If in fact we were allowed to vote by conference call or Skype, or go to a meeting or any of those things, you know then probably a lot of these expenses could be avoided,” Barry said. “But the fact is the law does not allow us to vote (long distance).”
Kevin Kane of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy says perhaps the law should be changed to allow commissioners to vote via teleconferencing.
“In a time where we're facing deficits and everybody's looking to cut spending, it seems pretty clear that travel expenses are one of the first things that we ought to look to be minimizing,” said Kane.
Eyewitness News asked Jindal, who appoints the commissioners, if travel expenses are justified.
His spokesman on coastal issues, Garret Graves, responded, saying, "An audit should be conducted to ensure that public funds are expended strictly following the division of administration's travel regulations. Any improper expenditure should be reimbursed to the levee authority …."
Board president Tim Doody explains the flood authority's stated mission.
“You know, it's basically to provide flood protection to all the people inside of our protected area,” he said.
Yet the east bank flood authority is spending tens of thousands of dollars on contracts with what would typically be called public relations firms. Two are local -- The Estopinal Group and Schulkens Communications. And one -- Kim Floyd Communications -- is based in California.
Eyewitness News asked Tim Doody if the firms were being hired, in essence, to improve the flood authority’s image.
“No, I would not say that. They’re being hired to help us communicate with the public. That's specifically what they’re hired for,” he said.
The flood authority has already spent more than $68,626.25 and has an active contract for another $44,937.50 worth of work by the end of September, for a total of $110,000.
The Estopinal Group did a lot of work for the flood authority for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, arranging news interviews and producing a video that aired on public access cable.
Doody sent WWL-TV a statement saying the board felt the fifth anniversary of Katrina was "an opportunity to explain to the country, with the help of professional communicators, what must be done in order to achieve not just 100-year protection ... but at a minimum 500-year protection...."
“We were trying to reach out nationally to get out the message as to why New Orleans is important and what the risks are here and what needs to be done about it,” said John Barry.
Schulkens Communications produced a video on the history of the Bohemia Spillway and how the Orleans Levee Board came to own it.
In part, Kim Floyd, of California, will hold a series of focus groups with people here in Louisiana.
When asked to explain the need for a focus group to find out what people in Louisiana think about storm protection, Doody responded, “No, not what they think about storm protection. About how they receive communication, how they process communication. We just want to make sure we're reaching all the people with the right message.”
Speaking for the Jindal administration, Garret Graves said "Their (the levee authority’s) sole focus and their resources should be managed to advance the resiliency of the greater New Orleans area."
Meantime, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy questions whether the flood authority should be spending so much of its taxpayer funding on public information.
“Are they in the business of education? It seems that they’re using some of these p.r. firms to sort of get a message out an educational message. Now that may be a worthwhile message. But is that really the mission of the authority?”
4 Investigates is examining similar questions involving the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority West, which covers the west bank. Look for that in an upcoming report.
Have a story tip for 4 Investigates? Click here to submit.