Friday, July 25, 2014

Despite Objections and Only 1 Bid, Kenner Council Approves $700k+ “Cadillac” Food Bank

If you were shopping for a new car, whether it was a Chevy or a Cadillac, chances are you would do your research. You might go online to compare car prices or visit multiple dealers to try to get the best deal and the most bang for your buck.

Even after you’ve decided upon a dealer who is giving you the best price for the car that you want, you probably would still haggle with him to get the price down even more. All they can do is say “No” right?

Unfortunately, since they are spending other people’s money, Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni and the Kenner City Council don’t feel the same way.

At last night’s Kenner City Council meeting, by a 6-1 vote, the Council approved spending over $700,000 for a new “Cadillac” Food Bank. The current Food Bank is being sold to the East Jefferson Levee District as part of the EJLD’s new headquarters.

The lone dissenting vote, District 1 Councilman Gregory Carroll, who’s District houses the current Food Bank and will be home to the new Food Bank.

Councilman Carroll doesn’t object to the Food Bank. On the contrary, he spoke eloquently about “Kenner showing its humility and humanity” for wanting to help others less fortunate.

Carroll objected to the bulk of the money for a City of Kenner Food Bank coming from money that could be spent on infrastructure improvements in District 1.

“The fact that we are getting a new Food Bank is fantastic,” Carroll said. “But this is a ‘City of Kenner Food Bank’ not a ‘District 1 Food Bank’.”

The City is using money that was dedicated to District 1’s infrastructure needs from the sale of streets to the EJLD, and a combination of money including $180,000 from the sale of the Toy Train Museum in Rivertown (which I believe should also stay in District 1 to promote Economic Development in Rivertown) and Federal CDBG money dating back to 2007.

What other money is sitting in old CDBG accounts that hasn’t been used for its intended purposes and is sitting there in a quasi-slush fund waiting for Mike Yenni to spend it?

Why does the City of Kenner have unspent CDBG money from 2007 and other years including 2010? No one knows. Most cities spend their Federal funding almost as fast as they get it because, if they don’t spend it all, they can receive less in subsequent years.

But, that’s not how Kenner works.

In addition, the Kenner City Council doesn’t follow its own laws.

In 2006, then-District 2 Councilman Joe Stagni authored legislation to ensure that money from the sale of streets would stay within the District to fund other infrastructure needs like drainage, sewerage and streets. 

The legislation was never meant to pay for buildings.

This has been the custom for many years and Stagni’s ordinance only formalized this custom.

It was taken a step further by several Council members including new At-Large Councilwoman Maria DeFranchesch to keep contract overages within the District. If a City contract actually came in lower than the money that the Council had approved, as rare as that is, the Council member of the District housing the project would request that overage be sent back to his/her District for use on another infrastructure project.

Interim City Attorney Louis Gruntz claimed that a new Food Bank was infrastructure and the Council was well within the parameters of the 2006 ordinance.

Carroll disagreed saying that the “intent” of the ordinance wasn’t for City buildings.

“You wouldn’t expect one council district to pay for a new firehouse or the relocation of City Hall. The City spent over $1 Million to pay for a new Public Works Building. The project started small and kept growing and growing. The Council always found the money for that.”

In addition, while Councilman Carroll doesn’t object to paying District 1’s share of the Food Bank (either 1/5 or 1/7 of the $700,000), he objects to District 1 paying almost 90% of the cost.

While Mayor Yenni maintains that CDBG money is “city money”, the reality is that this CDBG money was used primarily for low-income programs. District 1 has the lowest per capita income in the city, thus they would have received most, if not all, of this money anyway.

The City is using money from a CDBG grant that would have paid for the Annie Washington Center (to be housed in District 1), money from the aforementioned Toy Train Museum sale (also in District 1), $84,000 from the sale of the current Food Bank (again, in District 1), and $161,734 from the sale of streets in District 1.

The proceeds from the sale of the current Food Bank should naturally be included in the funding of the new Food Bank, but the rest, minus a prorated share, should stay in District 1.

In addition, after spending $512,000 to renovate the Code Enforcement office and $1 Million for some flowers at the entrance to Laketown, and with money unspent from the 2030 Plan borrowings (and still more money that was budgeted for the 2030 Plan and that is now being funded by the State and Federal Governments and the Regional Planning Commission), Kenner's coffers are overflowing and has ample money to pay for a new Food Bank from City funds.

Carroll was understandably frustrated.

“It is hard for me to believe that, with a $50 Million City Budget and $30 Million in new projects (from Yenni’s 2030 Plan), that we can’t find the money (from City funds) for a new Food Bank,” Carroll said.

Carroll also produced information from the City that showed that only 45% of the Food Bank’s users came from District 1.

After admitting that her staff gave Councilman Carroll the wrong information, Community Services Director Arleeta Terrell gave the correct stats on the Food Bank usage:

45% from District 1 residents
21% from District 2
11% from District 3
  9% from District 4
14% from District 5

So, 55% of Food Bank users come from outside of District 1.

“The numbers prove my point,” Councilman Carroll said. “This is a ‘City’ Food Bank.”

From those numbers, you would think that the rest of the Kenner City Council would be shamed into at least providing ½ of the new Food Bank funding.

“It’s up to the Councilmembers to determine what is fair,” Carroll said, “It is not up to me.”

So, did each Councilmember put up $100,000 each?  

No, the collective remaining members of the council could only pony up $13,600 each for a total of $81,600 of the $705,725 tab, or about 11% of the total.

New District 4 Councilman Leonard “Lenny” Cline sounded downright proud of the Council for spending any money on the Food Bank.

After the meeting, Councilman Leonard Cline noted that six council offices -- all except Carroll's- - contributed $13,600, or a total $81,600, from capital funding allocated to each district.

"We all contributed," Cline said. 

At the least, Carroll believes that $125,000 should be returned to District 1 for infrastructure. He rationalizes that if $161,734 was received specifically from the sale of District 1 streets, that money less $36,000 that the City is spending for new parking for the new Food Bank, or $125,000 should be sent back to District 1 for drainage, sewerage or other infrastructure projects.

That would be something. Not exactly fair to District 1 residents, but something.

He asked the Council to approve the new Food Bank with that stipulation. The Council refused.
As troubling as the Council’s lack of action in funding the new Food Bank with City money are, it is also troubling that there was only 1 bidder on a huge project like the new Food Bank.

How can a project worth $796,000 before some reductions, only have 1 bidder especially when it’s a building project that dozens, if not hundreds, of companies could receive?

Originally, there were 2 responding bidders but one bidder was disqualified.

Why didn’t the City re-bid this contract to get more contractors involved and get a lower price? Were the bids specs written so narrowly that only 2 potential bidders bothered to vie for the contract or was the bid rigged in such a way to favor the qualifications of the winner at the expense of the City and, since the money was coming from District 1 anyway, at the expense of District 1 residents? Was this punishment for Councilman Carroll’s disagreements with Mayor Yenni as Carroll continues to stand up and represent the people of District 1?

Regardless, on a project this big and general, this project should have received more than 2 bids. I mean, how many companies in Jefferson Parish alone can construct a modular building? But, when you’re spending other people’s money, you get a little lax from time-to-time.

"We all contributed," Cline said. 

Yes, indeed Mr. Cline – you all contributed. 

Unfortunately for the people of District 1 who have a multitude of infrastructure needs, THEY contributed more. Much more.

I hope that Mr. Cline is proud of himself and his fellow Council members.  

I know that I'm not.