2012’s Top 10 in News

LA. 1 toll increases OK’d
January 3, 2013
Did Thibodaux officials have a hit list? Suit alleges officials conspired against police captain
January 3, 2013
LA. 1 toll increases OK’d
January 3, 2013
Did Thibodaux officials have a hit list? Suit alleges officials conspired against police captain
January 3, 2013

State funds, Mother Nature and congressional realignments dealt the Tri-parishes a hard blow in 2012.

While our area is thriving – unemployment remains among the state’s lowest and oil-related industries are finally seeing more activity – Louisiana’s bleak $129 million budget shortfall directly created two of the year’s biggest stories.

Here are the 10 top news stories of the year presented in our annual countdown.

1. Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center’s Ills

Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center began the year in intensive care. The only hospital in Louisiana’s Charity system serving the Tri-parish region was hemorrhaging jobs and services.

In March, the hospital eliminated $2.9 million from its budget, closed its labor and delivery department and reduced its workforce by approximately 100 people. In July, another order for cuts totaling more than $3.7 million followed.

The hospital was on the verge of eliminating 245 more jobs and slashing its budget by an additional $14.3 million as the year neared an end. Hospital administrator Rhonda Green said three of Chabert’s six operating rooms would have been closed. The dental clinic would have been reduced by 30 percent. Inpatient and emergency services would have been halved. Departments slated for closure included dermatology, neurology, ophthalmology, orthopedic services, outpatient lab and pharmacy, physical therapy, research and women’s health.

The medical center was virtually on life support by the end of the year until a life-saving agreement was announced in mid-December.

The Ochsner Health System, a private entity, and Terrebonne General Medical Center, a publicly-owned hospital, unveiled a tentative $12 million arrangement that will involve payouts over the next year. Terrebonne and Lafourche’s parish governments are also providing a cash infusion – Terrebonne is providing $2 million, and Lafourche, $1 million.

The details on how Ochsner and TGMC will manage the medical center remain uncertain. For now, however, the hospital’s condition appears to have been upgraded from grave to critical but stable.

2. Nicholls State University’s Fiscal Woes

Like most state colleges, Nicholls State University began 2012 under a financial cloud.

A $1.4 million mid-year state-funding drawback translated into job freezes and cuts to travel allowances, supplies, student labor, the number of available scholarships and reduced operating services. The Thibodaux-based university also saw cuts to state-funded programs: athletics, the Louisiana Center for Dyslexia and Related Learning Disorders and the Louisiana Center for Women and Government.

Compounding matters, state support to Nicholls has diminished by 50 percent since 2008, when the funding totaled $35.8 million.

Nicholls has reduced its faculty and staff by 122 people – including 33 instructors – over the last four years and no campus-wide pay raises have been awarded during that time.

“It’s difficult to overstate the seriousness of these cuts, specifically to the cumulative effect of 10 reductions over the past four years,” university President Stephen Hulbert told the Tri-Parish Times in August. “The decimation of higher education in this state is unlike anything I have seen in my 40-plus years of professional experience.”

To offset the continued cuts, Nicholls used state-permitted tuition hikes. The 2010 Grad Act allowed a 5-percent hike for every college in the state based on performance-qualifying metrics and the second 5 percent is the final permitted rise from 2008 legislation. In fall 2012, tuition increased to $2,839.60 for full-time, in-state undergraduates and will eclipse $3,000 per semester in 2013-14.

The 10-percent increase allowed by the 2010 Grad Act will be granted each year until an institution meets the average of its Southern Region Education Board peers.

And relief at the state level is not likely, warned state Rep. Dee Richard. “I have to believe higher ed in general is going to see more cuts,” he said in an earlier interview. “The problem just keeps getting worse and worse until you face facts that you have to start prioritizing and protecting higher education and health care.”

3. Morganza Sales Tax Passes

The massive Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system got a bolster when Terrebonne Parish voters overwhelmingly approved a half-cent sales tax in December.

Evidence of work already done by the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District as well as the parish itself, they maintain, is one reason why voters reluctant to move ahead in the past gave approval for funding of the project, allowing the most vital pieces to be laid in place on their flood-protection jigsaw puzzle.

The tax, which will be collected beginning April 1, has a 28-year-life span before going to voters for renewal. Officials said it is expected to raise more than $300 million, at a rate of $10 to $12 million per year.

Bonds will be issued by the levee district to pay for the projects.

“It gives us a strong bargaining point with the state,” Levee District Director Reggie Dupre said of the 71-percent voter approval. “No matter who the next governor is they will realize the voters passed a new tax and we will get a tremendous amount of support from the state. We are already getting a lot from Gov. Jindal. And I hope and pray that one day we will still have a federal project.”

The December vote was the second time Terrebonne Parish residents consented to be taxed for Morganza. Passage of a quarter-cent tax 11 years earlier proved to be a catalyst for state cooperation, including what has amounted to a 60 percent state and 40 percent local match situation.

Once complete, Morganza to the Gulf – approximately 72 miles of earthen levee with 12 floodgate structures and a lock structure in the Houma Navigational Canal – is designed to protect development and the remaining fragile marsh from hurricane storm surge.

Work on the much-needed project is under way and is being fortified by parish drainage canals.

4. Isaac Delivers a Direct Hit

Hurricane Isaac spared the Tri-parish area major damage and flooding, but its relentless winds ran roughshod on electricity grids, blacking out tens of thousands of residents, abating communication, eliminating refrigeration and allowing south Louisiana mugginess to encroach indoors.

More than 34,500 Lafourche dwellings and about 24,000 in Terrebonne – nearly 59,000 customers in total – saw power outages continue days after the storm slowly maneuvered through the region. Across Louisiana, the state’s Public Service Commission reported the outage totals crested at more than 900,000 without power Aug. 28 as the storm moved ashore.

Hurricane Isaac’s center lumbered through Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes at a clip between 6 and 8 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center. Tropical storm- and hurricane-force winds blistered the parishes, and rainfall exceeded 10 inches in some areas. Lafourche Parish experienced the storm for a longer duration, almost relentlessly for nearly three days.

Aside from electricity-related inconveniences, the Category 1 spared the Tri-parishes, in large part. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported the storm damaged 2,103 Lafourche Parish owner-occupied houses and rental units; 1,127 St. Mary residences; and 1,695 Terrebonne homes. Damages stretched across 21 parishes, with St. John the Baptist Parish taking the harshest hit.

Officials and locals alike agreed, given the storm’s movement through the Gulf and direct entry, the damage could have been much worse.

5. St. Mary Welcome Center Sinks into Swamp

The crack heard around St. Mary Parish June 14 was the sound of the community’s $3.8 million Cajun cabin-style Welcome Center falling from its foundation.

By the day’s end, the 16,000-square-foot facility, just days away from opening, was lying in the swamp – more than five feet below the walkway leading up to the center.

The St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission had hired Baton Rouge designers Washer Hill Lipscomb Cabanis and Laplace-based Aegis Construction to complete the facility. Mediation between the parish, the designer and builder began in September.

Attorney Gary McGoffin, whose firm Durio, McGoffin, Stag and Ackermann of Lafayette is representing the tourist commission, told the Tri-Parish Times after the incident, “You cannot litigate and negotiate at the same time.”

McGoffin is seeking $3.36 million from insurers to raise and restore the facility. The commission is expected to pay $161,000 out-of-pocket expenses.

Expert House Movers has been hired to pull the structure from the swamp and repair damages.

EHM recently completed piling tests in the soil below the facility. McGoffin said EHM intends to increase the number of steel pilings used from 57 in the initial project to 228, as well as the depth to which they will be hydraulically driven and the load each piling can hold.

Meanwhile, St. Mary Parish Tourist Commission Director Carrie Stansbury remains hopeful the facility can be repaired in time for a 2013 opening.

“If everyone agrees to our (settlement) proposal, the repairs could begin in January and we could move in in August, with the appearance and finish according to our original plans,” she said.

6. Politics is a Tough Business

At the federal, state and local level, politicians learned a tough lesson in 2012: theirs is a tough occupation.

Fresh off the congressional alignment that saw Louisiana lose a seat, U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry lost his bid against fellow GOP Congressman Charles Boustany.

Boustany, a retired doctor from Lafayette, will represent the newly drawn 3rd District, which covers southwest Louisiana and Acadiana. This is his fifth term in Congress.

“We’re glad to get this done,” Boustany said after the hard-fought election. “I’m eager to get back to deal with the many challenges facing our country and our district.”

Asked about his future plans after the election, Landry told the Associated Press, “I’m going duck hunting. That’s what’s next for me.” But then he added, “I will consistently and always be a voice for our conservative principles.”

At the state level, Rep. Joe Harrison’s job was not at stake, but he did find himself on the outs with the power’s that be when it came to committee appointments.

Harrison (R-Napoleonville) and Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) were removed from the House Appropriations Committee after apparently speaking out against Gov. Bobby Jindal’s agenda.

“I’ve never been subjective to the strong-arming threats that I have by the [Jindal] administration,” Harrison told the Tri-Parish Times after his ouster.

The issue that sealed Harrison’s removal was related to his support of the Office of Group Benefits. The GB manages insurance benefits for the state. Harrison said he questioned a privatization contract offered to Blue Cross Blue Shield for OGB administrators, and was viewed as a threat to Jindal’s desires.

After being cut from Appropriation, Harrison was reassigned to the House Commerce Committee.

And a local fight to name her own administrator failed to get Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph enough support to protect her second in command.

Crystal Chiasson, Lafourche’s administrator since 2008, was ousted from her non-elected post after voters agreed to two amendments to the parish’s Home Rule Charter.

Voters approved requirements that future administrators must have been domiciled in Lafourche Parish for one year prior to their nomination, with 58 percent of the vote. A complementing proposition retroactively enforcing the provision passed with 54 percent of the vote, forcing Chiasson – an Assumption Parish resident – to vacate the office within 10 days of the amendment’s official publication.

Chiasson owns property in Lafourche and resides less than 20 miles from the Thibodaux government office, leading some to argue the effort to remove her from her parish job was politically motivated.

District 1 Councilman Jerry Jones, who sponsored the charter-change proposals for council vote, contended Chiasson was to blame for alleged mismanagement of the Office of Community Action and that the administrator had continued to disrespect parish employees despite his complaints to the parish president. Randolph said Jones did approach her regarding Chiasson’s relationship with parish employees, but the parish president didn’t specify the issues or solutions, citing personnel confidentiality.

“It’s over,” Jones told the Tri-Parish Times the day after the votes were tallied. “Our Home Rule Charter is clear. There are no more ands, ifs or buts; it’s exact. … It’s a good day.”

For Landry, Harrison and Chiasson, however, it really wasn’t.

7. ‘Cajun Justice’ Gone Wrong

It was a proud day for former Terrebonne Parish sheriff Vernon Bourgeois when A&E aired the season opener of the television series “Cajun Justice” in June.

But the moment was short lived.

Days before the series even aired, the Tri-Parish Times reported that a signed agreement between MAK Pictures and the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office concerning film crews’ 24-hour access to document the office’s workings for broadcasting did not detail financial compensation to the sheriff’s office.

Bourgeois said the department was paid $1,500 per aired episode, or $32,500, which included a $1,000 insurance deductible paid the previous year after a deputy wrecked a patrol car while filming a scene.

“Cajun Justice” detractors quickly gained an audience, too, as promotional video posted on A&E’s website depicted “Cajun Justice” as an instance when local people shun police and take law enforcement into their own hands. Other promotional videos showed deputies responding to a graveyard robbery, a distress call concerning a sighting of a local 7-foot-tall hairy beast and mentions of voodoo.

“I didn’t do it for the sheriff’s office; I did it for the area,” Bourgeois told the Tri-Parish Times shortly before the show first aired. “Because I do travel a lot, and still, even to this day, find that most people – because of other shows that are on TV, maybe – that everybody thinks we travel by boat; that we’re all people that didn’t finish sixth grade, that we’re all people who can’t read and write, that we go around barefoot everywhere, and we want to portray that that’s not true. Sure, there are some people that are like that. The whole nation, the whole world has people like that, but we shouldn’t be portrayed that way.”

The series aired beginning in June. By the following month, Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, who was handily returned to office after Bourgeois announced he would not seek re-election, pulled the plug on the show, despite MAK Pictures’ promise of $10,000 per episode.

The “Cajun Justice” relationship is among several concerns raised by private auditors in a review of Bourgeois’ four-year term. Larpenter requested the audit.

Still in draft form, the report points an accusing finger at Bourgeois, alleging management and accountability problems while he was top cop.

For his part, Bourgeois denies the existence of improprieties and said if there were errors, they were just that. He stands by decisions he made during his term. “I loved serving the public,” he said. “I did everything I thought was right for Terrebonne Parish.”

8. Morgan City Powerless

Morgan City went black June 26 when the city’s 100-megawatt transformer apparently overheated and burst into flames.

Fortunately, no one was injured in the explosion, but tempers flared over the subsequent weeks as sporadic citywide outages continued as workers scrambled to get a 20-year-old, 45-megawatt transmitter fully energized.

“We’re bringing it on slowly due to its age,” then-mayor Tim Matte told the Tri-Parish Times in July. The unit, which had set idle for a number of years, was eventually running at its capacity – 138,000 volts of electricity.

Outlying restaurants, gas stations and hotels saw customer volume swell as Morgan City residents scrambled for basic necessities. Exacerbating the problem, the Tri-parish region – like much of the nation – was experiencing record-setting temperatures during the summer months.

Matte projected at the time that a new transformer would cost the city more than $1 million. The burned 100-megawatt transformer was insured.

Steam generators at the Joseph J. Cefalu Sr. Municipal Steam Plant have also been in use since the June 26 incident.

The Morgan City Council approved a surcharge on electrical bills beginning this month to pay for installation of equipment at the steam plant. Residents will pay a surcharge of $2.25 per 1,000 kilowatt hours used. The surcharge will expire at the end of the year.

City officials expect the surcharge to generate about $385,000.

9. BP Donation Brings ‘Best of the Bayou’

From the depths of despair, the Best of the Bayou was born.

A tourism-recovery grant funding allocated after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill helped fund the Best of the Bayou Festival, a free two-day event celebrating south Louisiana culture.

Organizers received enough money to repeat the event this year. The Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce is slated to play host again.

Rainy weather and some miscommunications with downtown Houma businesses made for a bumpy inauguration for the festival, but, overall, the crowd was receptive to the celebration.

In all, 24 musical acts were booked from the local and regional talent pools. About 50 artisans were slated to sell homemade crafts, although the rain kept some away. About a dozen local food vendors also participated in the event.

Best of the Bayou was downtown Houma’s first festival since 2003, the last year Downtown on the Bayou was held.

“We didn’t want to bring back Downtown on the Bayou,” festival executive director Drake Pothier said at the time. “We wanted to kind of carve out our own path and create our own history.”

Terrebonne Parish received $2 million in tourism-recovery money – $175,000 per year of which has been set aside as seed money for the festival.

“We went for the gusto in these first two years, and we’re doing that intentionally,” Pothier said. “We wanted to be aggressive and put this festival on the map.”

In addition to Marc Broussard, Ruthie Foster, Bonerama Cowboy Mouth and the Red Stick Ramblers, the GIVERS and a number of local bands headlined the event. Unfortunately, storms in the northern reaches of the United States made it impossible for the GIVERS to appear.

“The weather certainly dampened (attendance), but I’m still very pleased with the way (the festival) turned out,” Pothier said after the event. “You just can’t control the weather. Whether it happens in year one or year 10 – the potential of this event – you’re bound to be hampered by weather.”

No matter, locals who attended the inaugural festival are looking forward to Best of the Bayou II, rain or shine.

10. Triple Murder in Lockport

Neighbors in a Lockport townhouse duplex were awakened Nov. 4 to the news that a 29-year-old woman and her two daughters had been found dead with stab wounds inside their smoldering dwelling.

Investigators believe an arsonist sparked a fire in the Longville Apartment Complex unit where the family lived to obstruct a triple-homicide investigation, authorities said.

Jacqueline Gautreaux Nieves and her daughters – Gabriella Nieves, 6, and Isabella Nieves, 20 months old – were found dead in a room on the apartment’s second story. All three had been stabbed at least one time, Lafourche sheriff’s spokesman Brennan Matherne said.

Carlos Nieves Jr., 32, Jacqueline’s husband and the girls’ biological father, reported smoke in the apartment to authorities at roughly 5:30 a.m. He ran to a neighbor’s for help, deputies said. When he returned, smoke in the apartment was too thick to gain entry.

Within two days of the discovery of the bodies, the LPSO announced that David Brown, a 34-year-old Houma man suspected in the case, had been arrested on charges stemming from a separate incident. Brown was named a suspect after he invoked his right to legal counsel while being questioned about the triple homicide.

He is being held on $110,000 bond for unauthorized entry into an inhabited dwelling and simple battery stemming from an incident the night of the murders wherein he entered an adjacent apartment and committed a battery on another within the apartment, according to authorities. Bond cannot be posted because the Louisiana Department of Probation and Parole has placed a hold on Brown’s release.

“We have compelling evidence at this point, and we are working diligently to develop additional leads and forensics that further solidify David Brown’s involvement in this horrific crime,” Sheriff Craig Webre said. “As the investigation continues, we expect to bring additional charges relative to the murders and possibly additional related crimes.”

The last reported triple homicide in Lafourche Parish was in May 2008 when three men were murdered with an AK-47 on the 600 black of St. Louis Street in Raceland.

Another victim was shot in the leg during that attack, but survived.

2012 Top 10FILE PHOTO