The Levee Certification/Accreditation that wasn’t (but it only costs $3 MILLION)

Presented at December 5, 2016 EA Drainage Board meeting

In November of 2014 East Ascension Drainage Board designated HNTB to perform “the long term project” of Levee Certification/Accreditation aimed at lowering FEMA flood insurance rates in the parish.  Two-and-a-half years, and $2.5 million later, and there’s little to show for the effort.  The Marvin Braud Levee System is UNACCEPTABLE to FEMA while, according to Drainage Director Bill Roux’s latest pronouncement (on April 10), HNTB “will be finishing up this year” and another $750,000 budgeted.

HNTB’s Atri Sen

What, exactly, remains to be done?  Roux would only say that recommendations would “be coming shortly” without getting into specifics.

Nobody in a position to do so was answering any questions after the latest EA Drainage meeting.  Is there a plan in place to identify necessary improvements to get those levees certified/accredited; which will, in turn, save all that money paid in flood insurance premiums by Ascension residents?

Project Manager Atri Sen used to be so talkative when it came to HNTB’s work for the parish (it was also awarded a $750,000 contract to implement a Master Transportation Plan recently and he wasn’t talking about that either) but no more.  Approached after the latest drainage meeting Sen was absolutely panic-stricken at being asked:

“Hey Atri, can I give you a call tomorrow to talk about Levee Certification?”

According to the project manager all inquiries, and he meant all inquiries, must go through Drainage Director Roux.  So a series of questions was emailed to Bill Roux on April 11 including:  “Will Ascension’s levees be certified by the relevant governmental entities?  If certified, will the savings to Ascension Parish offset HNTB’s healthy fee?

Roux, known for rambling on past the point of comprehension, responded two days later:

“Wade, I must follow parish policy. All news media requests has to go through the Parish Public Information Office.”

Since when?  Oh, well.  A policy is a policy, so we went through proper channels and emailed Ascension’s PIO Martin McConnell asking him to forward the questions to Roux on the same day…(Cue sound effect of crickets chirping).  All ten EA Drainage Board Commissioners (ten Parish Council members whose districts lie on the east bank) were copied on the email and none of them has responded either.

HNTB’s last update was on December 5, 2016 when Atri Sen called the project “a potential game-changer for the parish” with regard to flood insurance premiums.  He also said “We wanted to be very open and transparent” before conceding existing levees are NOT eligible for accreditation.  On August 3, 2015 Sen explained the difference between “certification” and “accreditation.”  Certification is engineering approval of the levee; Accreditation is FEMA acceptance that the levee “affords 100-year flood protection.”  The latter is “purely actuarial” and given when reduction in flood risk is demonstrated to FEMA.  Thus, accreditation is the “game-changer” to reduce insurance premiums.

HNTB sent its first invoice to Ascension on December 12, 2014 and one (sometimes two) have followed every month thereafter.  Seven Task Orders make up the project beginning with No. 1: Program Implementation Report with a “Contract Maximum” of $149,830.00.   That amount appears on the invoice(s) anyway.  Initially, HNTB submitted employee time sheets accounting for every hour worked by its personnel…

First HNTB invoice included time sheets

But, this being Ascension Parish, it adopted the locally accepted accounting methodology of stating the percentage of work completed and a check is drawn from the parish’s Central Fund. Does anyone from the parish actually verify the percentage of work completed?  HNTB claimed Task Order No. 1 is 6.02% complete and Ascension cut a check for that percentage of the Contract Maximum, $9,019.77 in the case of the first task order.

Six (or seven) task orders would follow: No. 2- “Bayou Conway” with a $151,250 contract maximum; No. 3- “Marvin Braud Pump Station” ($149,890); No. 4- “Levee Certification & Accreditation” ($16,392); No. 5- “Levee Certification” ($893,175); No. 6- “Bayou Conway & Panama Canal Levee” ($396,800); and No. 7- “AP Flood Control Improvements” ($325,383).  The combined contract maximums for the seven initial task orders came to $2,082,720.

HNTB would begin invoicing the big ticket item, No. 5, on August 28, 2015 when it declared the project 3.00% complete and Ascension Parish paid $26,795.25.

Successive monthly invoices saw the percentage of completion rise, relatively uniformly through early 2016…

until April (is it a coincidence that President Kenny Matassa had been sworn into office?)…

By April 4 the contract maximum for Task Order No. 5 increased from $893,175 to $1,038,575 without EA Drainage Board ever having taken up the item at a meeting.  It would get worse, depending on one’s perspective, in May…

Not only did Task Order No. 5’s  contract maximum increase by another $622,203 to $1,660,778;  Task Order No. 5.1 was added for $145,400.  Since it’s such a paltry amount No. 5.1 doesn’t seem to merit its own designation and it’s anyone’s guess what task is being performed.  Welcome to Ascension Parish HNTB, the place where a job that’s 42% complete in April is only 35% complete in May.

As of last month HNTB had been paid $2,435,448.48 pursuant to seven task orders (eight if one counts Task Order No. 5.1 separately from No. 5).  Four tasks have not been completed and their unearned maximum contract amounts come to $414,774.54 (even though Bill Roux said it would be another $750,000 to complete the project).  What’s another $335,225.46 of taxpayer money among friends?

We’ll keep you posted if parish levees are ever certified/accredited.