Financial woes piling up in historic Washington

by Heather Miller

Washington, the small-town speed trap in St. Landry Parish that owes the state $200,000 for speeding fines it pocketed also has failed to repay FEMA for undocumented emergency Katrina funding.

The historic town of Washington has been frequenting news headlines far more often than usual lately for a bedroom community of 1,000 people, and it looks like it's only getting worse.

In addition to the $200,000 the town failed to pay the state for speeding fines under 10 mph it collected along I-49, it appears the town has yet to show proper documentation showing how it spent the roughly $72,500 allocated by FEMA in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

FEMA spokesman Manuel Broussard says in 2005, the federal agency deposited the $72,500 for Washington into the state's emergency account, which is handled by the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Federal emergency funds given during disasters are channeled through the state, Broussard says.

It appears that the town received the emergency money from the state in 2005, though a GOHSEP spokeswoman was not able to confirm that by Friday morning.

"The town of Washington provided documentation of costs incurred with sheltering evacuees; however, the documentation dates did not coincide with the timeline for Hurricane Katrina," Broussard says.

When FEMA had this epiphany - four years after the town reportedly received the money - the agency informed Washington and state officials in August 2009 that the money must be repaid unless the town could provide more sufficient proof on how the money was spent.

Broussard says Washington can still show FEMA the necessary documentation and possibly keep the money, but it's been almost two years since the town was notified of its deficiencies and nothing has been resubmitted.

Washington Mayor Joseph Pitre has been under fire since The Independent Weekly reported in its June 1 cover story "Need for Speed" that the town exempted itself from a 2009 state law enacted to  curb speed traps. The law requires that money collected for speeding violations of 10 mph or less above the posted speed limit be redirected to the state. Washington's 2009-2010 audit revealed that the town failed to turn over more than $200,000 in speeding fines that should have gone to the state treasurer's office.

The town has since voted in a Home Rule Charter form of government, or a legal loophole in state statute that allows the town to continue to keep money for all speeding fines. The state law only applies to towns that govern without a home rule charter and only pertains to tickets issued along interstates.

A recent meeting Pitre had with a Legislative Audit Committee to address the speeding fines ended after little discussion and no action taken, so it remains unclear whether the town plans to repay the speeding fines it kept.

When reached by phone Friday morning at Louisiana Technical College in Lafayette, where Pitre also works, Pitre said, "I'm in class. I'm teaching. Thank you," and abruptly ended the call.