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Less-awful BC deal still needs improvement

Stuck pigs squeal. And whine. And maybe become a bit more accountable to the people, so it’s no time to let up on the Bossier City Council as it pursues a somewhat less-awful contract at taxpayer expense.

A month ago, the Council put on its agenda renewing a no-bid contract with Manchac Consulting Group for water and sewerage services, with three significant changes: substantially increasing the monthly payout, lengthening it to five years, and removing a provision that would allow the city to walk away from the agreement at its convenience with notice. This came right after an election that saw two incumbent councilors and Republican Mayor Lo Walker defeated for reelection.

Incoming Republican Mayor Tommy Chandler, along with other citizens, complained that this time period would consume most of his term and that he should have much more leeway to make decisions in that area of policy. During that Council meeting, members voted to yank the item from the agenda.

Two weeks later, a slightly-modified version appeared on the agenda whose only substantial change shortened the length to three years. Democrat Councilor Bubba Williams ran interference for the new version, defending particularly questioning from no party Councilor Jeff Darby about its length and unwillingness to open the process to other bidders. Neither Darby nor public commenters mentioned much about the fee, which would increase from the current level by 37 percent over the next 12 months, 17 percent over the next, and 8 percent after that, for a total of 75 percent over the extension’s life.

Baton Rouge-based Manchac, its chief executive Justin Haydel, and its employee who serves as city engineer Ben Rauschenbach have directly or indirectly donated over the years nearly $20,000 to the campaigns of Walker and current councilors, and nothing to Chandler or the incoming Republican at-large Councilor Chris Smith. Williams hasn’t received anything from them as their donations began less than a decade ago and he has gone unchallenged at the polls since 2005.

Darby ended up casting the only vote against the deal, with its passage on initial reading cueing it up for a final vote during next Tuesday’s meeting. Except when the agenda for that one came out, the item went missing from unfinished business. Instead, as new business yet another version of the ordinance appeared, retaining the length and no opt out at will provisions but significantly reducing the fee to a flat 19 percent increase, or a savings of over $1.3 million. Inflation during the period of the current amount paid was about 5 percent and current expectations peg it over the next three years as about the same.

Meanwhile, at the BossierNow website Williams answered questions about the choice, in doing so confirming citizens’ worst fears – that by not opening up a bidding process months ago the city had put itself in such a poor bargaining position with a May 31 deadline looming that Manchac could dictate to it that the firm would take no shorter than a three-year deal. Williams indicated that presumably together the Council and Walker never considered soliciting bids, and that the matter might draw litigation; Smith, in public comments at the previous meeting, said he believed the Charter didn’t permit the city to let an outside entity determine the mayor’s appointee as city engineer.

Williams also took to posting comments at BossierNow to defend Council actions. Attached to an opinion column critical of the Council on this issue, he simpered “Instead of complaining about everything we do because you think you have all the answers, throw your hat in the ring and put your big boy pants on and run for office & solve all the problems.”

Whenever you see a politician make comments along these lines, he knows he has been caught in a mistake, and, worse for him, he knows you know he’s been caught making a mistake. If Williams is so sensitive that he can’t take well-deserved criticism over his and his colleagues’ policy-making, he is free to resign his post and let sturdier folk serve the people. No one’s forcing him to take $900 a month (plus a bit more in benefits) to oversee spending more than $100 million a year of the people’s taxes and fees and a half-billion dollars of debt Bossier Citians will have to pay back for decades to come.

Despite the Walker and the Council having let the city be cornered, Chandler, who under the current version of the ordinance would be saddled with a length of 35 months at a cost increase twice as high as it needs to be, might find a path to better terms. Perhaps he could approach Manchac and outline a deal that presents two distinct futures for it in the city: take the current deal and there is no way Chandler will approve any future extension, or take a 13-month deal at, say, a 10 percent increase over the current fee with the promise that he won’t unilaterally exclude Manchac from winning competitive bidding for a four-year contract starting Jul. 1, 2022. (Assuming Chandler favors continued privatized operations, which he would be wise to do.)

The deal’s current iteration is the least bad one yet, but taxpayers and ratepayers deserve better still. Hopefully, they’ll get it.

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