TENSAS PARISH, La. -- A Tensas Parish judge stripped the decision-making authority from the mayor of the town of St; Joseph after an outside auditor found gross financial mismanagement in the town's 2015 books.
St. Joe, as the town is commonly known, has been plagued with chocolate-brown water for more than a decade as its aging water system has continued to suffer breaks, losing more water to leaks than it actually distributes to customers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal first pledged $6 million to repair the town's water system in 2013, but consistently late audits and questions about how Mayor Ed Brown has handled St Joe finances kept the town from accessing the funds.
To be able to tap into capitol outlay funds, municipalities must submit annual financial audits to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor that meet government accounting standards. The town has failed to do so for 2015, leading Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera to put St. Joseph on his non-compliant list, preventing the town from accessing nearly $8.3 million in grants currently earmarked by Gov. John Bel Edwards for the town's water system repairs.
The Legislative Auditor conducted an investigative audit into Mayor Brown's administration earlier this year, listing a number of possible criminal violations by Brown, including more than $50,000 in improper travel reimbursements. Tensas Parish District Attorney James Paxon hasn't returned calls seeking comment on whether he will pursue criminal charges against Brown.
But it was the town's lack of an annual financial audit that cut off the flow of state funds to St. Joe.
Monday, an outside auditing firm, Allen, Green & Williamson, LLP, completed a months-long audit of the town's finances and found they couldn't draw any conclusions about the town's financial state because of a lack of documentation submitted by the mayor.
In addition, Allen, Green & Williamson found the town has neglected to consistently pay payroll taxes for town employees, and is now facing fines and penalties by the IRS totaling $54,195.
In April, a Fiscal Review Committee, made up of representatives from the Governor's Office, the Legislative Auditor's office and the Attorney General's Office, voted unanimously to ask a Tensas Parish judge to appoint a fiscal administrator for the town. The judge made his decision Monday.
“The appointment of a fiscal administrator is a major milestone in our efforts to bring clear, clean water to St. Joseph,” said Gov. Edwards in an emailed release. “Making this a reality for the people of this town has been priority for me since I took office, and while we still have a significant amount of work ahead of us, the people of St. Joseph should know that assistance is on the way in the near future.”
In the meantime, the only thing consistent about the town's water quality has been uncertainty. People in St. Joe never know when the water will run a rusty brown, clear, or tinged with yellow.
The La. Department of Health and Hospitals has found levels of Iron and Manganese hundreds of times higher recommended standards for drinking water, yet continues to maintain that the water is safe, yet undesireable to drink.
The lead scientist who studied the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan recently raised questions about the safety of high iron in drinking water. WWL-TV first reported on it three weeks ago, the latest in our series of in-depth reports on the town's brown water.
The judge's decision to appoint former First Assistant Legislative Auditor David Greer as the fiscal manager for St Joseph essentially strips the mayor and the town's Board of Aldermen of financial decision-making authority.
"We are thankful for the input of the citizens of St. Joseph; without their diligence and efforts, this result could not have happened. We believe that the new administrator will improve the town's financial practices and will take the steps necessary to help the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of St. Joseph,” said Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Legislative Auditor Purpera will not remove St. Joseph from his non-compliant list until Greer can begin to get the town's finances in order.