RIALS: The Debacle That Was The East Baton Rouge Stormwater Fee

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” ~ Sir Walter Scott

Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome lost political leverage on October 26th.  The Metro-Council (MC) voted unanimously (12-0) to reject Broome’s proposed stormwater utility fee.  The train of events that led to the public repudiation of her administration is worthy of examination.

Why did the MC Reject Mayor Broome’s Proposed Stormwater Utility Fee?

Kelvin Hill, Parish Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, advised MC members on September 12th that the stormwater utility district and fees must be immediately approved.  When questioned by MC members, Mr. Hill stated:

“I will say that we have been under an audit process through our regulatory agencies for some time now, and we have been working our way through those audit findings, in a way that leads us to that point in time where we are at tonight, so part of coming into compliance where we need to be, is to ask council for support to pass this legislation, and other elements of that process we have been, just to be honest about it, under a “gag order” and we haven’t been able to really discuss it in a public way, at least not the way we would want to do it, or we would anticipate being able to do it.”

“We started last October sharing with the Council our point of view of what we thought needed to be done, we spent time earlier this year in the spring working with our legislative delegation on the legislation that was passed that allows this utility to be established across the state.  And we believe that part of our plan going forward is to hold communication sessions around kind of the phase 2 [sic] of what is yet to come so people will understand that.”

Mr. Hill said “everyone must pay” the fee — home owners, businesses, churches, charitable organizations, fire districts, public and private schools, governmental offices, funeral homes, cemeteries, and municipal parks.

Mayor Broome scheduled six town hall meetings with MC members and residents starting two weeks before the requested October 26th approval.  Prior to the meetings, the public became aware of the magnitude of the proposed fees. For example:

  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints (Dalrymple): $44,300
  • Parkview Baptist Church (Airline): $28,950
  • Healing Place Church (Highland): $28,900
  • George Catholic Church (Siegen): $19,600
  • Saint Vincent de Paul Charities (Staring): $8,950
  • Saint George Fire Department (All Facilities): $9,500

The first three public town hall meetings were public relations disasters, with condemnation across political parties, social classes, and ethnicities.

On October 18th Congressman Garrett Graves confirmed with his contacts at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency there are no “gag orders,” no Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), and no imminent deadlines to comply with the Clean Water Act.  Unbelievably, no one from the Mayor’s Office contacted Mr. Graves to confirm his information.  Instead of viewing these developments as good news for Parish residents and businesses, the Mayor’s Office doubled down that the City-Parish is under a strict EPA deadline. The public and media believes they are being bamboozled.

On October 19th the remaining three public town hall meetings were cancelled.  Mayor Broome asked the MC to remove the stormwater utility fee from its October 26th meeting agenda. The MC ignored this request and proceeded to hear public comments and decide the fate of the fee proposal.

On October 20th the “Unfiltered With Kiran” news website published the following:

“Six East Baton Rouge Council Members have put in a formal records request regarding the proposed stormwater utility fee. The request was addressed to the city-parish asking for “all texts, phone calls, call logs and emails” from Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, her staff members including Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kelvin Hill and Chief Communications Officer Mark Armstrong as well as attorneys with the parish attorney’s office.”

WBRZ submitted a public records request and received this response from the Mayor’s Office:

On October 26th a political train wreck occurred at the MC meeting.  Several residents spoke in opposition, and not one person spoke in favor of the fee proposal.  For example, this comment and question was posed to the MC:

Our charitable organizations, and churches will be taxed in excess of $1 million annually under this fee. Are we so desperate as a community to charge organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul, United Way, Susan G. Komen, Battered Women’s Shelters, and others?” 

Absolutely brutal.  And so were the questions by MC members directed to Mayor Broome, her direct reports, and the Parish Attorney’s Office.  The MC listened to their constituents, and delivered a devastating 12-0 rejection to Broome’s fee proposal. 

Why did Assistant CAO Kelvin Hill claim to be under a “gag order” that required Non-Disclosure Agreements by Parish Officials?

Mr. Hill misled the MC and the public, because only a judge can issue a “gag order” to withhold court evidence from the public.  The Parish is not being sued by any state or federal governmental entity.

Why did City-Parish Administration Employees sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), and with whom?

In the October 26th MC meeting Parish Attorney Andy Dotson stated that Federal Rule of Evidence 408 requires confidentiality between governmental parties. However, other attorneys have advised MC members this rule is applicable only when there is litigation before a federal judge.  No litigation is underway.  Mr. Dotson did not (and could not) provide examples where an NDA has been required in the past for MC members.  Because the EPA confirmed to Representative Graves that no such NDA exists between their agency and the City-Parish, did someone falsely insert the EPA as a party requiring a NDA?

Why did the stormwater utility district and fee proposal go to the MC for approval and was not placed on the ballot for voters to approve?

As a result of falsely claiming a sense of urgency, there was not enough time to sell the stormwater utility fee plan to the public as a tax.  Mayor Broome never informed the MC they were “working with our legislative delegation” to develop an enabling framework in the establishment of stormwater utility districts that permits “fees” to be collected once approved by whatever means deemed appropriate by the municipality or City-Parish.

What enabling legislation was Kelvin Hill referencing to create a stormwater utility district, and did he collaborate with the MC?

HB-713 was sponsored by Representative Jerome Zeringue (District 52) and Senator Franklin Foil (District 16).  It passed overwhelming in the House and Senate. Governor Edwards signed this legislation into law as Act # 228 on May 31, 2022.

4161.1 Stormwater utility systems; political subdivisions

For the purpose of managing stormwater flooding including abatement of litter and other flood causing sediments, a political subdivision may create one or more stormwater utility systems and adopt stormwater fees sufficient to plan, construct, acquire, extend, improve, operate, and maintain stormwater management systems, either within or without its boundaries.  Any stormwater utility system created pursuant to this Section shall be a revenue-producing public utility pursuit to R.SS. 33:4161 and shall have all the right, powers, and privileges granted to such utilities by the Part and any other applicable provisions of law.”

Kelvin Hill did not share this information with the MC until September 22. I spoke with Representatives Zeringue and Edmonds, and Senator Foil.  All three confirmed this legislative framework was never intended to serve as a major revenue generator, but rather to mirror the application of 41 other states to collect small parcel fees to fund the removal of litter and flood causing sediments as a result of heavy storms.  All confirmed that Mayor Broome misused the intent of this legislation, and they will initiate legislative boundaries so this misuse never happens again.  It remains unclear who Mr. Hill collaborated with in the Baton Rouge legislative delegation.

Does the City-Parish need to raise taxes to fund a stormwater utility district?

Absolutely not.  Monies can be re-allocated amongst other Parish budgets.  It requires all governmental departments in East Baton Rouge Parish to work together in the general interest of residents.  For example, reducing the Parks and Library Control Board spending per capita to match the equivalent expenditures per capita of Austin, Texas (the highest per capita spending in the state of Texas) would free up $96.4 million annually.  All options must be explored.

Choices have consequences.  And Mayor Broome’s lack of transparency and secret political maneuverings on the stormwater utility district and fees resulted in a loss of trust with the MC, the public, the media, members of the area legislative delegation, portions of her political base, and some donors.

By contrast, the residents of East Baton Rouge Parish owe a debt of gratitude to U.S. Representative Garret Graves for confirming that no DOJ or EPA actions are pending.  This revelation enabled the MC to reject the hastily proposed stormwater utility fee (tax) of nearly $0.5 billion over the next 10 years.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” ~ Yogi Berra

Private businesses operate with vastly different principles than governmental entities.  Private capital is a scarce resource that must be efficiently prioritized and spent for maximum shareholder value.  East Baton Rouge Parish must change its approach to mirror that of private businesses.  In that spirit of comparison, these actions should be taken:

  • Ensure the Mayor’s Office complies with the October 20th MC request for emails, phone logs, text messages and documents. It is unacceptable for the Mayor’s Office to hide information from the MC by redacting entire sentences and paragraphs.
  • Hold all individuals accountable that misled the public.
  • Gather all of the stormwater compliance stakeholders (local, state, federal governmental entities) into the same room and document the regulatory requirements and deadlines that are to be achieved. Share this information with the public in town hall meetings, as the lack of transparency is no longer acceptable.
  • The MC should ask for a third-party independent investigation of the events that transpired over the past twelve months. The report should include long term recommendations to improve the transparency, coordination, and communication between the Mayor’s Office, the MC, our federal partners, and the public.
  • The Baton Rouge Area Chamber (BRAC) should have participated in the development of the stormwater compliance recommendations. If BRAC is unwilling to engage, then their annual funding of ~ $400K from the Parish should be denied.
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