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Monday, Feb. 16, 2015

EYES WIDE SHUT

Governmental entities need your scrutiny

Making a living these days is not easy. For some, both spouses work, some work two jobs, and making ends meet with costs rising to raise a family and for necessities result in living paycheck to paycheck. And it doesn’t help matters that governmental entities take a big bite out of our income every payday to spend as they see fit – often not wisely.

So, are we paying attention to how our governing bodies are spending our tax dollars? Far too many do not, either because they don’t have time or, even worse, just don’t care. All we need do is look at voter turnout, which is most times deplorable. Let’s take a look at some actions by local government that readers have asked about and commented on and should be viewed with eyes wide open, not eyes wide shut.

The Caddo Commission is under fire on more than one front. Few of us understand the deal with Elio Motors where the Commission shelled out $7.5 million to purchase the General Motors plant from RACER Trust. Turns out, all the taxpayers got were empty buildings and continuing delays on the start of production of an alternative vehicle and the jobs associated with it.

The equipment inside, which is worth millions, is being sold off and the money going to someone else, not the parish.

Currently, another hot topic is the Commission’s effort to renew the tax millage for the Biomedical Research Foundation – three years before it expires in 2018. Steps have been taken to put the tax renewal on the ballot May 2, extending it until 2032. No, that is not a typo. In what many government watchers consider a highly unusual move, only three commissioners voted against it – Stormy Gage-Watts, Ken Epperson and Lyndon Johnson.

On another issue, the Commission, on a 9-3 vote, turned down a proposal from Epperson that would have required all non-governmental organizations and economic development groups who receive funds from the parish to make their contracts and financial documents available to any parish commissioner or the parish administrator upon request. But Commissioner Mike Thibodeaux said the reason is that they did not want to scare away any potential jobs and that transparency into NGOs is not a problem.

Finally, but not least, is the ongoing controversy over the participation of commissioners in the Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System. It has been reported that the infusion of taxpayer money for the commissioners in CPERS is triple the amount they contribute. The legality of commissioners participating in the retirement system since they are parttime employees, is being questioned. A resolution to the issue will come soon and it likely won’t be pretty.

The raising of these issues could not come at a worst time. All Commission seats are up for election in October, and it’s a good bet that challengers will have a lot of political fodder should they decide to run against one of the incumbents. Only Commissioner David Cox is term-limited.

Over at the Caddo Parish School Board, opposition is mounting over a massive restructuring of the school system, called Reinvest in Caddo, which would close six schools – three in the inner-city – and build three new ones. Reinvest in Caddo, unanimously approved by the 12-member School Board, is the brainchild of Superintendent Dr. Lamar Goree, who has been on the job less than a year. That plan needs voter approval, and it will also be on the ballot May 2 in the form of a $108 million bond issue critics contend that the plan lacks adequate citizen input, was put before a board with six new members, and should have been placed on the ballot in October rather than in May to allow more scrutiny by voters.

So you may want to mark your calendar for May 2. There will be items on the ballot that determine how tax dollars will be spent and for how long.

In the midst of this controversial proposal, the school board has decided to extend Goree’s contract through 2018, even though he has not been evaluated for his first year on the job and his Reinvest in Caddo plan has not been judged by the voters. If approved, Goree would get a $10,000 signing bonus to extend his contract through Dec. 15, 2018, instead of the original Nov. 30, 2016, ending date. In addition, he would receive a $25,000-a-year raise beginning March 1, bringing his total salary to $225,000 a year.

School board member Larry Ramsey is the driving force behind this initiative, and it may be a done deal by the time you read this column. But the consensus seems to be that the school board should have waited until his performance has been evaluated and the voters give a thumbs up or thumbs down to his restructuring of the Caddo School System. And, it probably would have been prudent of Goree to ask the board to delay such action until those developments have occurred.

Being an elected official is certainly not an easy job these days, and I respect those who accept the challenge. But, they must remember that they work for us.

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