A once-promising proposal to use federal grant dollars to fund a tire-shredding facility in East Baton Rouge Parish is now off the table after a string of missteps and miscommunications at multiple levels of government.
With $605,000 available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pilot program was expected to tamp down on the parish’s deadly mosquito population, which breeds in pools of stagnant water that collect in abandoned tires.
But after the city-parish missed a deadline set by the state to purchase the shredder, and the Metro Council failed to agree on where to locate it, a local contractor instrumental to the project who agreed to operate the site at almost no-cost to taxpayers pulled out.
“I felt like, in the end, the city-parish was very incompetent in following through on some very simple things,” said the contractor, Diane Baum.
The Louisiana Department of Health said Friday it plans to redirect the funds to purchase pesticides for mosquito abatement districts across the state.
The tire shredder project’s failure has emerged as a political lighting rod in the race for mayor-president, with Council member Matt Watson, a Republican candidate for mayor-president, and incumbent Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, a Democrat, each releasing competing press releases blaming one another for bungling the grant.
Watson, a longtime proponent of the shredder, said, “We made this as easy as possible for Sharon Weston Broome’s administration to simply follow the process on behalf of the residents here — and even that was too difficult.”
Broome responded that it is “typical in political seasons for candidates to blame the opposition for their failures,” and said Watson “had neither the will nor the capability to make this project a reality.”
The grant is ultimately a drop in the bucket when compared to the parish’s $1 billion annual operating budget, but the circumstances leading to its loss offers a window into the bureaucratic and political dysfunction that sometimes plagues city-parish government.
From the start, the tire shredder project suffered from too many cooks, and communication across agencies was often strained.
“This grant had more players than I had ever seen in my experience with the city-parish,” said Kris Goranson, who was responsible for procuring the shredder as head of purchasing under Broome.
The CDC awarded the grant to LDH, which later allocated it to the parish’s Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control, an agency, colloquially known as MARC, that serves under the purview of the Metro Council.
Under a contract with LDH, the city-parish had until June 30 to purchase and install the shredder in order to qualify for reimbursement, but after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, that deadline was pushed back to Sept. 1.
The extension, however, was only made verbally. The contract was never updated.
The city-parish was prepared to purchase a shredder ahead of the new deadline, Goranson said, but without a valid contract, the transaction couldn’t legally be made under the parish’s Plan of Government, and the deadline passed.
Even then, it wasn’t clear if the grant had actually lapsed, though the confusion was enough for Baum, who soon decided to pull-out, effectively killing the project.
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As late as Sept. 25, the Louisiana Department of Health relayed to MARC that money was still available for the tire shredder, a message that bewildered MARC’s interim director, Randy Vaeth, who told his board: “I have no idea what all that … means.”
A spokesperson for LDH said the agency was in constant contact with both the CDC and the city-parish ahead of deadlines. Vaeth said his contact at LDH was “extremely responsive,” but it was clear the official wasn’t “at the top of the food chain” and the department “wasn’t exactly proactive.”
It’s not clear why the contract wasn’t updated sooner.
Watson blamed Broome’s administration for not catching the contract snafu earlier. He said he was inexplicably sidelined from a purchasing committee tasked with selecting the tire shredder, a charge Goranson said didn’t line up with his recollection, but is nonetheless irrelevant to the missed deadline.
Darryl Gissel, the city-parish’s chief administrative officer, said the Mayor’s Office was always tangential to the project, and said it was incumbent on MARC as the agency in receipt of the grant to make sure the contract was valid.
Vaeth said he’s content with taking the blame. The interim director was put in charge of the project last year after his predecessor resigned amid accusations of inappropriate spending. At the time, that included criticism from the council that the tire shredder project had ballooned into a $1.6 million enterprise.
Vaeth said that as a biologist, the grant process was unfamiliar.
“If they want to say there’s someone responsible for the overall thing, I’ll raise my hand,” Vaeth said. “I was unable to herd all these cats.”
Where to locate?
Even if the city-parish had been able to purchase the tire shredder, it’s not clear where it would have been located. For much of the last year, that question went unanswered and frequently consumed the Metro Council in acrimonious debate along racial and political divides.
The facility was once slated for construction on a 1-acre property leased by MARC near the Baton Rouge Metro Airport, but Council member Chauna Banks, who represents the area, repeatedly argued the site overloaded her predominantly black, low-income district with unwanted industry.
The Mayor’s Office, seeking to strike a truce, suggested a site near Baker, a location the Metro Council had unanimously agreed to.
At the time, Council member Dwight Hudson said, “If we as a body cannot come to an agreement and move past on this issue and get this job done, then I would say let’s bring the tires here because that’s about all this body would be good for at that point.”
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However, several months later, the decision to locate near Baker was rescinded after several homeowners in a nearby neighborhood voiced concerns the operation would stifle their community’s growth.
Watson later charged that Broome’s administration hadn’t done due diligence in vetting the site before offering it as an option to the council, though Gissell said they sought approval from local leaders before introducing it.
After it appeared all municipally owned sites had been exhausted, Baum agreed to purchase her own property to house the tire shredder — and lease it to the city-parish for $1 — but the proposal never made it to the Metro Council for approval.
Vaeth, at MARC, said in hindsight he was naïve to think the tire shredder wouldn’t face opposition, but at this point, he doesn’t think the loss of the grant is all that bad for Baton Rouge.
Baum, meanwhile, said she soon plans to open a privately owned tire-shredding facility, and although the city-parish will have to pay to drop off tires, she said she’ll work with MARC to study the impact of tire removal on mosquito populations.
In the end, Baum said, an unpredictable Metro Council and an uncoordinated city-parish administration made the project too risky for her investors.
“Private companies that make a monetary investment have to feel confident that the rug won’t be pulled from underneath them and that they are walking into a stable parish government system,” Baum said.
Councilman Matt Watson is blaming Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration for bungling a $605,000 federal grant and losing out o…
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