SADOW: Bossier Council’s Insistence On Bad Deal Is Suspicious

No reasons are better than the bad given reasons given for an inept Bossier City Council forwarding an ordinance extending and boosting in cost a politically-connected firm’s contract well into Republican incoming Mayor Tommy Chandler’s administration.

Earlier this month, the Council removed an agenda item that would have renewed the deal with Manchac Consulting to run the city’s water and sewerage for five years at a substantial increase with no change in responsibilities. Last week, it brought back the idea, now at three years, but still including a much larger price tag.

Compared to the expiring deal, payouts would increase by 37 percent over the next 12 months, 17 percent over the next, and 8 percent after that, for a total of 75 percent over the extension’s life. Since contract amendment in 2018, nationwide inflation has risen only 5 percent, or less than 2 percent a year.

According to the amendment, Manchac admits it won’t provide any additional services, although it claims that the dramatically higher fee “include[s] costs for increased overhead and adjustments for … additional personnel.” Yet the city will have to bear the salaries of the new employees. It provides no details justifying the astronomical increases.

Worse, the follow-up retained striking an existing provision, standard in these contracts, that would allow the city to terminate the deal without having to demonstrate cause. This means the Chandler Administration would have to honor this for 35 of its 48 anticipated months unless the firm violated the bargain in some way.

While Manchac has much to be thankful for with such a sweet deal, so do some Bossier City politicians who have benefitted from Manchac’s and its chief executive officer Justin Haydel’s campaign largesse. Haydel has donated in the past to the campaigns of Republican Councilors Scott Irwin ($500, defeated for reelection) and David Montgomery ($2,500, won reelection), and Republican Mayor Lo Walker ($3,544.30, defeated by Chandler), as well to former city Chief Administrative Officer (under Walker) Lynn Austin when he ran successfully for city marshal, and to other Bossier Parish elected officials.

Manchac has given $500 to Irwin, $2,500 to Montgomery, and $5,000 to Walker, as well as to Austin and others in Bossier Parish. For 2021, it took a different approach, donating $5,000 to the Building a Better Bossier PAC, run by local businessman Jerry Juneau who oversees firms with various government contracts. The PAC independently spent over $20,000 on Walker’s campaign and on the election of Walker ally Republican Vince Maggio to succeed retiring GOP Councilor Thomas Harvey. Other donors to it included Ben Rauschenbach, the Manchac employee who serves as the city’s engineer, who forked over $1,000, and Manchac subsidiary Atakapa Services that also does city business, which coughed up $5,000.

But the councilor who lead the charge to ram the contract through was Democrat Bubba Williams, who hasn’t received a cent from Manchac, Atakapa, or anyone affiliated with each directly or indirectly – perhaps because, unlike the names above, Williams hasn’t faced an opponent in two decades. He responded to comments made by no party Councilor Jeff Darby (who hasn’t run a contested election since then as well), who had criticized putting Manchac in charge of water and sewerage years ago.

Darby said there wasn’t any reason the city couldn’t do something like a one-year extension and put the business out for bid. He questioned why the city seemed so captive to Manchac as the provider. Public comments by Chandler, his intended CAO Shane Cheatham (who defeated Irwin but won’t take that seat), and incoming Republican Councilor Chris Smith, echoed that concern, questioning the three-year length.

Williams claimed it would take a lengthy period for newcomers to understand the business, an assertion later echoed by the councilor voters replaced with Smith, Republican Tim Larkin. That left listeners wondering whether councilors at present either dismissively think the newcomers to city government aren’t too swift, or that they are themselves a little slow and assume everybody else shares that quality.

He also noted that if Manchac wasn’t around that the city department that it oversees might grind to a halt. This plays into a criticism of public-private partnerships, that governments let themselves become too dependent on the contractor and then find themselves over a barrel. His remarks and the vastly inflated cost of the extension lend credence to belief this has happened with Bossier City.

To that point, and perhaps worst of all, Williams described the three-year term as a product of recent “give-and-take” negotiations with Manchac, implying that the firm wouldn’t agree to anything shorter and perhaps at reduced cost and that this threat to walk away held real sway. If so, this is entirely a failure of leadership by Williams, the Council as a whole, and Walker to put the city in a position where it feels Manchac can extort a deal not in the best interests of Bossier Citians.

Unless, of course, they never saw themselves as obligated to get the best deal for the city – which would have involved months ago opening up the process for competitive bidding – and instead envisioned the relationship as part of an insider cabal including themselves and Manchac, scratching each other’s back. Except things came a-cropper when voters booted Walker, Irwin, and Larkin.

In any event, the implication that the city has little choice is specious. Dozens of firms, many with dozens of clients and decades of experience, perform the same services as Manchac. Any one with a few months’ notice easily could pick up Bossier City’s business.

Chandler inquired about jettisoning the contract exit by convenience, which Williams answered that Manchac had spent heavily on asset purchases and hired staff so it didn’t need to “prove themselves.” Of course, it seemed to escape him that a contractor in a bid prices in the cost of doing these things.

Worse, note the (il)logic here, that by virtue of these actions Manchac essentially is allowed to  write itself in to the city Charter reflecting a permanence untouched by policy decisions in delivering water and sewerage services that governments and citizens rightly should control. Would any private sector entity agree to such a clause in a contract with Manchac? And doesn’t this remove a lever of accountability that discourages Manchac to milk the city dry and stall any efforts through legal actions to be terminated for cause?

And, except for brief mentions by the speakers, no one really questioned the assertion by Manchac that they needed the sharply higher payout. Perhaps that’s because this is the plan: anticipating it won’t win another extension under Chandler, Manchac until then will try to extract as many tax dollars as possible.

At best, the Council disaplyed amateurish governance that disserves the people. At worst, it showed off good-old-boy government rather than good government. Before passage, citizens are best served by an ordinance amended for an extension of 13 months (through Jun. 30, 2022) with a small price increase without excising the exit option.

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