SADOW: The Trap Bossier City Is In Was A Long Time Coming

Years of bad decisions have put Bossier City taxpayers into a trap, and the same dynamic looks set to cost them even more courtesy of elected officials unwilling to treat the people’s money with the respect it deserves.

At last week’s City Council meeting, Republican mayor Tommy Chandler placed on the agenda an item to boost the city’s contracted payment to Manchac Consulting from $12,500 to $20,000. The firm oversees public works, but as part of that also has had its employee Ben Rauschenbach serve as interim city engineer over a series of short-term appointments for nearly two years.

During the meeting, Rauschenbach defended the company’s request, aided by Chandler. He said he was consumed by the job with so many infrastructure projects in the books, about $150 million worth. The extra money, which works out to $90,000 a year, would be less than the city could expect to hire a dedicated outside city engineer, so in essence with the boost the city could get both him and a city engineer (he was thinking of his assistant). Chandler supported him on this, saying he had tried several times to hire a city engineer, but candidates always backed out.

Chandler’s defense invoked rich irony. A year ago, he complained to the Council, as mayor-elect, that its approval of a contract extending Manchac’s term through the middle of 2024 tied his hands as mayor. Even more ironic, the $12,500 figure came down from the initial request, and now Chandler in effect wants to send it back up.

Then to add comedy to the issue, Chandler never closed the deal officially and starting last November the city began paying an hourly fee that exceeded the $12,500 per month invoice (Rauschenbach revealed the latest monthly charge to be in the $15,000 range). Amping up things even more, the proposed hike to $20,000 would be made retroactively, so the city would deliver a bonus to Manchac for all the past months in the amount of $20,000 minus the actual bill (it appeared none had exceeded $20,000).

On top of it all, Rauschenbach couldn’t really say what additional benefit the city would accrue for the extra expense. He made vague noises about a more proactive rather than reactive approach by Public Works, but nothing specific.

Unfortunately, past decisions – made by a number of present councilors – put the city in this predicament. The risk with contracting city functions to a private concern always is the contractor can walk away, leaving the city to pick up the pieces in hurried fashion, granting substantial leverage to that firm. It becomes magnified when a local government makes no effort to seek out the best operator at the best price – which happened last year when the Council, minus the present three new members, and under the previous mayoral administration handed the no-bid contract to Manchac.

And the stakes become magnified still when there’s so many projects with so many dollars that need overseeing. This is a direct consequence of the spending spree the city has engaged in over the past two decades as its debt quintupled, with this overleveraging creating by far the highest debt per capita of all major Louisiana cities despite modest population growth that didn’t argue for such a massive buildout.

As a kind of compromise, Republican Councilor Chris Smith, backed by GOP Councilor Brian Hammons – both newcomers not on the Council for the deal’s approval last year – first suggested a search for a city engineer, and when dissuaded by the unlikelihood of hiring one, then a contract with Manchac filling the post but reserving the right to end that with 30 days’ notice if a candidate came along, with commensurate fee reduction. Told by City Attorney Charles Jacobs that a clause already existed to that effect in the agreement between the city and Manchac, his amendment died.

However, a reading of an unamended version of the partnership agreement doesn’t suggest that interpretation. Section 14.02 addresses termination by either party, but indicates this in an all-or-nothing fashion, not for specific duties. In the end, only Smith and Hammons voted against the ordinance increasing the fee and retroactively, sending it to its final reading next week.

Ideally, it should boil down to this: Manchac has an agreement on the table to provide services for $12,500 a month. If it doesn’t like it, it’s free to discontinue the relationship. It hasn’t publicly threatened to do so if the ordinance fails – yet.

But Bossier City elected officials put taxpayers in this position, by ringing up such huge public works projects expenses, not engaging in competitive bidding to oversee this, and by failure to complete the negotiated contract that has sent costs higher than agreed upon. And now looking to go higher still unless a Council majority refuses to get pushed around and Chandler gets it together.

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