Boulet aims to finish costly flood project to recoup state money

Boulet administration staff members explain status of Homewood Detention Pond project at Milton Civic Center in April 2024
CAO Rachel Godeaux told residents near the Homewood Regional Detention Pond project that LCG is working to make the ponds functional so the state will release additional funds. At right is interim Public Works Director Warren Abadie and at left is Drainage Director Brian Smith. Photo by Robin May

The Boulet administration still can’t say the Guillory administration’s signature drainage project will protect a single home from flooding, but with millions in unreimbursed expenses on the line, it is moving ahead to complete it. 

The state is continuing to withhold nearly $28 million from Lafayette Consolidated Government for the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project, the multi-site flood protection project for which LCG has already shelled out $76 million.

That figure includes $54 million in state capital outlay reimbursements, but the state began withholding payments in mid-2022, citing missing information on forms, lingering questions over the status of the project and the “irregular practice of a contractor purchasing property he is working on.”

The state’s current problem with the more than 2-year-old detention project — comprising 188 acres of detention ponds, one series along the Vermilion River near Milton and another along Coulee Ile des Cannes near Scott — is that the ponds still aren’t operating. The Homewood Detention Pond project near Milton, four ponds on 372 acres, could require another immediate investment of $7 million, and LCG engineers are estimating as much as $15 million is needed to complete the project.

Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s successor, Monique Blanco Boulet, inherited the beleaguered project, and last week her staff told residents who live near the Homewood ponds that the state wants “a level of functionality at the ponds” before it will reimburse LCG. In order to function, both pond locations require a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, which the Guillory administration did not secure before commencing work in early 2022, so the ponds can connect to their respective waterways. 

Residents near Homewood Detention Ponds gather for update from Boulet administration
Residents gathered Thursday at the Milton Civic Center for an update on the detention pond project near their neighborhood. Photo by Robin May

“There is a determination being made on what is jurisdictional wetlands, and we are working with a contractor to secure those permits that were supposed to be required from the very beginning of this project,” CAO Rachel Godeaux told residents of the Homewood Regional Detention Pond project last week. 

“It is an after-the-fact permit, which is what we are trying to obtain,” Godeaux told the group gathered at the Milton Civic Center. 

Boulet said her administration, still less than four months in, has been working to repair relationships with the state office that oversees capital outlay funding and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. LCG took another step toward that end when it moved to dismiss a pending appeal in its federal lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers and St. Martin Parish over the clandestine removal of spoil banks along the Vermilion River in 2022.

What Boulet and her staff could not assure residents is whether the ponds will reduce flood risk, but they assured them LCG’s experts are analyzing the feasibility of the project, still with mixed reviews. Yet in order to recapture the $28 million, they are moving ahead despite not having a clear funding plan. Another $22 million in state capital outlay dollars for Bayou Vermilion Flood Control remains in the state’s Priority 5 funding class, which, as Boulet told the group, is the equivalent of “Monopoly money” because it doesn’t turn into cash until it moves up in priority. 

They spoke at some length about the need to restore trust with state and federal agencies, as well as with local residents. That was all so reassuring to hear.

Homeowner Katie Hays

Without those dollars the state continues to withhold, the parish could be on the hook for reimbursements to the city, because nearly $20 million in pooled funds were used on the project (another $11 million in the parish’s ARPA funds went to settle a lawsuit with the Bendel family after LCG seized the land). 

“It’s an odd agreement,” Boulet said of the Construction Management at Risk contract LCG entered into with Rigid Constructors in early 2022. “They were not asked to complete the project. They were asked to give us $60 million worth of work. … When we ask them to do additional work, they want more money. [T]here’s the next section and that’s the problem,” she added. “The money for the next piece.”

While the administration was peppered with questions by residents who have long complained that the project has disrupted their lives, and potentially their health, it acknowledged that it didn’t yet have all the answers. But it did seek to provide a clearer understanding of the official steps it has taken to put Rigid Constructors on legal notices for deficiencies at the site (including the removal of dirt piles owned by the contractor), and the work underway to construct fencing and shore up other safety and maintenance concerns around the ponds. 

Homeowner Katie Hays was reassured by the Boulet administration’s update, calling the presentation a “good faith effort” to address neighbors’ concerns.

“They also laid out an actionable plan of immediate next steps,” says Hays. “They spoke at some length about the need to restore trust with state and federal agencies, as well as with local residents. That was all so reassuring to hear.”