News Briefs

More trouble for Stone, Vitter clears the air and more


An attempt by the Lafayette Parish School System to correct salary inequities of its support staff backfired last week when the school board was presented with pay adjustments that would have resulted in what board member Mike Hefner described as a "windfall" for some employees. As a result, the board halted the plan, and employees protested that the raises promised to them were being delayed. The pay adjustments would have resulted in several employees getting raises of less than $1,000 a year, while at least one stood to gain $21,000 ' a 42 percent pay raise.

The board ordered the staff committee to rework the pay plan. According to Hefner, most of the drastic increases resulted from the committee's decision to factor in prior experience of employees before they joined the school system, which bumped many employees' salaries above standard levels. "I think the board did the right thing," Hefner says. "It was tough coming back and saying, 'Well, the money you thought you were going to get, you may not be getting.' I feel for the employees for putting them in this position but we have to fix this thing." ' Nathan Stubbs


The parties that issued bonds to Stone Energy in the past have sent the Lafayette company a series of noncompliance notices for failing to file reports and financial statements with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This comes fresh on the heels of Stone announcing it was being investigated by various entities for overestimating its natural gas reserves by $1.4 billion ' meaning the company reported overly generous and incorrect financial information to the federal government and investors ("Stone Cold," Feb. 8.)

In a press release, Stone says updated reports will be filed in mid-March, "which would resolve the issue" for its bond holders. Under an unlikely worst-case scenario, the bond holders could demand a lump sum payment from Stone, which could cause the company to sell assets or pursue other dire measures. ' Jeremy Alford


Evacuees living in Lafayette hotels and motels received a last-minute extension from FEMA last week that extended the March 1 deadline for FEMA hotel payments to March 15. An estimated 400-500 rooms are still occupied by evacuees, according to the latest survey conducted by the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. LCVC's Gerald Breaux says the survey only covers the number of rooms occupied by evacuees, not the number of evacuees per room. If the March 15 deadline holds, a number of evacuee families could be homeless.

Acadiana Outreach Center has set up a housing hotline to try and connect evacuees with property owners. Landlords or families with rental properties should call Acadiana Outreach at 234-6993. ' Scott Jordan


Acadiana C.A.R.E.S.' eviction fears have been temporarily halted by a ruling from Judge Glennon Everett in the 15th Judicial District Court. C.A.R.E.S. filed a lawsuit in May 2005 asking for injunctive relief and damages against its landlord, Roselawn Properties Inc., owned by Kathy Ashworth, who threatened C.A.R.E.S. with eviction, claiming the nonprofit HIV/AIDS agency was in default of its lease ("Homeless for the Holidays," Dec. 29.). Roselawn filed a lawsuit to evict C.A.R.E.S. on Feb. 1. In the Feb. 21 hearing, Judge Everett refused to hear Roselawn's case, transferring the eviction proceedings to Judge Byron Hebert, who has already been assigned C.A.R.E.S.' damages suit. The ruling is a temporary victory for C.A.R.E.S.

"The judge gave us the relief that we requested ' having the eviction suit heard in the original lawsuit so that there weren't two different lawsuits," says C.A.R.E.S. attorney Charles Kreamer. Roselawn now must refile its eviction proceedings in Judge Hebert's court. Roselawn attorney Hank Perret declined to comment. ' Mary Tutwiler


After Gov. Kathleen Blanco suggested that Louisiana's junior senator actively lobbied against her plan for a housing trust, Sen. David Vitter fired off a rebuttal. "This sort of partisan blame-throwing helps no one, least of all those still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Vitter wrote to Blanco. The "actual and precise facts" he offers are that he told a group of lawmakers the state plan wasn't "terribly important, but that the substance of the plan itself was."

Vitter also told the governor that details for the plan's footprint need to be determined soon, thus defining where rebuilding will and will not take place. Since he holds some of the highest approval ratings of any other elected official in the state, Vitter can make such bold statements to the state's CEO. Still, Vitter wrote in another letter to supporters last week that he won't be leaning on that popularity to make a bid against Blanco in next year's gubernatorial election. ' JA


If there were ever a time for a Select Committee on Coastal Restoration and Flood Control in the Legislature, it would be now. But the panel, created by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and others in 2004, hasn't met in roughly a year. Meanwhile, various lawmakers during the recent special session floated the idea of forming a new standing committee for homeland security and hurricane protection.

Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Bourg, chairman of the Select Committee on Coastal Restoration, will propose a compromise in the regular session that convenes next month. Dupre wants to make the coastal committee permanent, folding in homeland security issues rather than forming yet another panel in the Legislature. "There's not enough room for another committee, and I'm willing to join forces," Dupre says.

There are political ramifications. By creating a new committee for these areas, oversight would have to be pulled from six separate chairmen in both chambers. "That'll be the tricky part," Dupre says. ' JA


National coverage of the recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Rita continues, with The New York Times and Washington Post providing the most regular (and aggressive) coverage of ongoing challenges in Louisiana. A special-edition Feb. 27 issue of U.S. News & World Report features a 31-page special report on New Orleans, and even some unlikely outlets are weighing in: Popular Mechanic's current issue features a controversial cover story that purports to debunk Katrina-related engineering myths. ' SJ


The state took its first real step earlier this month toward the acquisition of land needed to start the rebuilding process. Through an executive order, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has called for the commandeering of private property around the 17th Street Canal, largely near Lake Pontchartrain. The order was requested and recommended by a slew of agencies, including the Corps of Engineers, Jefferson Parish and the Attorney General's Office. In the order, Blanco states the grab is in the "best interests of the citizens of the state."

Three plots are identified in the order, as are 10.2 acres of land extending north into Lake Pontchartrain; affected businesses include landmark restaurants Sid-Mar's and Brunings. The properties will be used for levee and floodwall construction. Owners will be "identified and compensated in accordance with the terms of the Cooperation Agreement between the United States of America and the Orleans Levee District," according to the order. ' JA


Ever since Chris Whittington took over as the new chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, press releases and political hits have become more frequent and pointed. He's taking shots at Republican congressional candidates, poking holes in levee bills proposed by GOP lawmakers and of course sticking up for the party's embattled governor.

In the latest dispatch, Whittington applauds Gov. Kathleen Blanco for her "hardball tactics" in the fight for more federal hurricane money ' specifically, the additional $4.2 billion proposed for housing by President Bush. That stance is hogwash to Richard Baker supporters. (For a related story, read "The Man with the Plan" on P. 9.) ' JA