The latest example of government failing its taxpayers and citizens is our recent cover story—“Stung!” by Stephanie Riegel—about the escalating costs and fees for a new headquarters for Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control. It was approved for $6.5 million and is now up to $11.1 million—with every escalating public dollar spent approved by our Metro Council. The project manager, Gary Beard, had his fee of about $480,000 balloon to $1.2 million—and his firm even had office space in the public building. How does this happen, and what heads will roll? Will taxpayers get a refund?
As one reads the details about change orders for windows from Ireland and countertops nicer than those used in our local hospitals—not to mention a giant rat in the lobby, which has an acrylic case that cost $1,800—you can become livid. Many of these expensive changes were challenged by the vendors as unnecessary—yet Beard and the Metro Council approved them anyway.
This is an outrageous example of incompetent oversight and dereliction of duty by government officials. Government at work, right? What can you do about it? If it’s not illegal, no one goes to jail for wasting our money.
Councilmen Dwight Hudson and Matt Watson met with Todd Walker, MARC’s director, asking him to resign. Walker’s response? An email stating he had consulted with his agency’s board and decided “not to submit a letter of resignation at this time.” Now Hudson and Watson are calling for a hearing to fire Walker.
Watson acknowledges “there has been a history of lack of oversight but fiduciary oversight is the single most important job of the legislative branch and the buck stops here and it is not going to happen anymore. There is something shady going on out there and when we confronted (the director) he didn’t ask how he could fix it. He argued we were wrong.”
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome responded to the controversy, saying, “These findings send a signal that there needs to be tighter oversight of the agency by not only the MARC Board of Commissioners but the Metropolitan Council itself. My administration will work with council members to investigate the situation at MARC and make any necessary changes in order to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure quality delivery of services.”
While quick to point out the Metro Council is MARC’s governing authority, Broome conceded “it is the city-parish’s responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and ensure fiscally sound management practices are being utilized by all agencies.” She is right, and, as leader of the parish, should hold the Metro Council and all government agencies accountable for spending and oversight. That is their job—and hers, too.
Still, this 20/20 hindsight and “fix” doesn’t excuse anyone and, sadly, doesn’t recover a penny of the $5 million in excess taxpayer money spent on the fancy new office with a giant rat statue in the lobby. It is, however, more evidence that government fails to spend wisely as if the dollars were their own.
Taxpayers trust elected officials to look out for them. What happened at MARC can appear as corruption and seedy politics that allows “pigs at the trough,” which is part of our history. We deserve better and it makes me angry.
The MARC story is but one example of government failure and waste. We hear often the cry that “government needs more money.” Then we read a story like “Stung!” and one wonders if we can even trust government leaders with the money they already have? Maddeningly, there are many other stories we’ve read that speak to the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government, as well as contracts doled out and folks added to the payroll.
Even worse is that the public often passes a dedicated tax to allegedly protect those dollars, only to find it has gone to an unelected board to spend as they please—like the Council on Aging, CATS or MARC. Are there stories there among these government agencies yet to be discovered and told? Fact is, we have already read stories about each of these, which all get millions of tax dollars—and waste many of them. It is an outrage and a crime in my opinion.
I personally came out against the dedicated taxes for CATS and the COA. Too much money and poor oversight. Status quo and politics. I may have supported a millage on mosquito abatement because I actually thought the money was going to abate mosquitos. And, I had the Metro Council on duty to protect the dollars collected, right? Wrong.
But we all know, government waste isn’t only found at the city-parish level, it’s rampant at the state and federal levels, too. We recently read this headline in The Advocate: “Louisiana Medicaid audit suggests possible wide-spread (sic) misspending, prompts federal probe.” As state officials screamed about deficits, there was $85 million or more in Medicaid spending that was given to folks who didn’t qualify. But don’t worry, it has been fixed and will never happen again. Now some will say, but those were federal dollars (don’t we provide those, too?), not state budget money. But you miss the point. These are the same people in charge and same mindset handling our state dollars. Are you naïve enough to think state dollars aren’t being wasted every day?
So, how do we deal with these problems? Do we just fire people and clean house of the politicians? Will new folks be any different?
Why does government spend your tax dollars so carelessly? Because it’s not their money. Many voters have just decided “no more taxes, period.” They could argue if the system won’t change, then their position won’t change. While being a conservative, I have supported some taxes because I believed they were necessary and beneficial—like in the case of MovEBR and the Bridge Center. You may disagree. But being stung by something as simple as a dedicated tax for mosquito abatement, I may have to admit government may never change if we keep giving it more money. It may only change if forced.
While I spoke above about tax dollars in government, I also want to touch on operations and the standards set. Specifically, what the mayor and Metro Council expect in treatment of city-parish employees. For example, charges of sexual harassment in the office of the parish attorney by a top executive there which have become public knowledge. What will anyone do?
I will always presume innocence but expect an investigation. Has that happened? Or is the interim parish attorney going to turn his head along with others? Will we have more of that 20/20 hindsight again? What are our standards and process? I am waiting.
Tigers on top
Last week I saw that LSU athletics is riding high in many of the major sports (there may be more).
We know that the football team had a 10-win season, capped by a New Year’s Day bowl win and a No. 6 ranking. Last week, the baseball team was ranked No. 1, men’s basketball was 13th, gymnastics was 5th; softball was 7th, women’s track 4th and men’s track 5th. Quite impressive. Kudos to LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva, the coaches and players. Best of luck for the rest of your seasons.