Nichole Liuzza, Eric Aymond and Paul Morvant's Letter to the Editor on the Parish Government Session
As representatives of the 2019-2020 Leadership Tangipahoa class, we would like to share with you our experience and impression as we embarked on our first session of the year, which was focused on Tangipahoa Parish Government. As in past classes dating back to 1996, we were well-informed and inspired by the sheer breadth and depth of the information shared by our parish government leaders. This information and experience provided our Leadership Tangipahoa class with better awareness of our community while developing our skills as leaders and providing insight into opportunities for service.
Themes that emerged during the day were the parish government's focus on people, service, sustainable growth, and technology. The emphasis on public service and selflessness was best captured by our initial stop at the Tangipahoa Parish Council Chambers in Amite with an introductory talk by Parish President Robby Miller. His vision for parish employees is to ensure that everyone, no matter what department or the stakes, moves forward to "attack the problem" and he strives for everyone to have what he considers as three essential ingredients to do their job: people, tools, and authority. Among the information shared, which included brief introductions and talks by Andy Currier- Director of Public Works, Jeff McKneely- Director of Finance, and Lionel Wells- Parish Council Chairman, were a brief history of Tangipahoa Parish as we celebrate our 150th anniversary (www.tangipahoa.org/150), an explanation on how our current home rule charter style of government transitioned from a police jury ("The First Detroit" documentary hosted by TangiLibrary on Youtube is a must watch for all residents), how our parish is currently functioning with an approximate $60 million operating budget funded by a 1 cent sales tax established in 1992 by former Parish President Gordon Burgess, and how approximately 270 parish employees currently serve over 132,000 residents.
The group then traveled next door to the parish courthouse. This one building houses four (4) very integral parts of our parish government. Besides the obvious courtrooms used for both civil and criminal cases, the building houses the Registrar of Voters, Parish Tax Assessor, and the Clerk of Court.
Our first stop was meeting with the Registrar of Voters Mrs. Andi Matheu. Mrs. Matheu explained the efforts of her staff to keep accurate voter rolls, register new voters, and maintain the systems used during elections. Although low tech options like paper ballots are still utilized, an oversized iPad style screen will be used for the first time this year at early voting centers to take the place of older ballot machines. Mrs. Matheu is currently promoting the Geaux Vote app to increase voter turnout.
The next stop was the Assessor's office, managed by long time Tax Assessor, Joaquin "JR" Matheu. His office's main role is to determine the fair market value of properties and assess taxes on this value via established millages approved by the taxpayers. He also explained homestead exemptions and tax freezes, two important ways property owners can lessen their tax burden. Mr. Matheu's office is also utilizing technology upgrades by implementing a new Windows based database and utilizing the parish GIS (geographic information system) system extensively to make public access of tax information easier.
Our final stop in the courthouse was with Clerk of Court, Gary Stanga. Mr. Stanga promotes an open-door policy with no set appointment times, which makes his office more accessible to the public. Many of their records are court minutes and court related documents, but they do also store marriage licenses, passports, deeds, birth certificates, mortgages, etc., making this office a parish historian of sorts, with some records dating back to the 1800s. They are quickly running out of storage space, but they have started using digital filing systems for some incoming documents. Most residents do not realize that this department's operating expenses are fully covered by the fees they collect.
We then walked to the Parish EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and spoke with Mr. Dawson Primes, Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the parish. Mr. Primes introduced us to the command center of the EOC which acts as a centralized location for responder agencies and their coordination efforts before, during, and after major emergencies. The EOC was the first building of its kind in the state that was funded by a FEMA Safe Room Grant in partnership with state liaisons. The EOC features redundant technologies and utilities and protective structural aspects to keep the building secure and functional at all times during emergencies. Some of these include: 8.5" thick concrete walls, rated at 175mph continuous winds for 24 hrs.; bullet proof glass windows; 2000-gallon potable water tank; 450kw Diesel generator w/1000 gallons of fuel; redundant sewage, fiber, electrical, A/C; lightning protection; positive airflow system, etc.
Next, we hopped on the buses for a short drive to lunch at the Florida Parishes Event Center adjacent to the Florida Parishes Arena. During lunch, we heard from Tina Roper, Director for Workforce Development, who informed us of a program called GeauxJobs. She outlined the program and some of the many opportunities that they provide for parish residents, such as regional employer job postings on their website. They also provide resources for young adults to successfully get hired and retain their job, such as career development, career assessment, and career counseling. These services are provided through various grants at no cost to recipients!
We also heard from Kelly Wells, Director of the Florida Parishes Arena and Retention Coordinator for the Tangipahoa Economic Development Foundation. Mr. Wells outlined the capabilities and accommodations that the Arena could provide. He also highlighted the different types of events that are held there throughout the year, which includes rodeos, arts & crafts festivals, Monster Truck shows, AWA Pro Wrestling, concerts, and barrel racing. The main arena can accommodate seating for 1500+ guests with ample parking space onsite and has utility hookups to serve over 40 RVs for overnight stay. The adjacent Event Center hosts more formal events, such as banquets, seminars, presentations, and receptions.
After lunch, we visited the parish landfill and were taken on a mobile tour of the facility by Donnie Colona (Operations Manager), Connie Henry (Administration Manager), Andy Currier (Public Works Director), and Jason Williams (Methane Gas Technician). The large mound at the front of the site is covered in a special artificial turf that acts as an erosion blanket over the compacted layers of dirt and garbage that are piled high in these "cells", which are areas engineered for garbage collection. Different stages of cell preparation were explained which includes harvesting of existing trees and topsoil, mining of sand and gravel, and then the addition of compacted dirt fill for foundation preparation under the watch of third-party engineering professionals. Garbage is then added, compacted to a certain level measured by GPS tracking, and then covered in dirt or a special slurry at the end of each day. The original cell was opened in the late 1980's and is currently the tallest point in the parish. Methane gas, a natural product of decomposing trash, is harvested by a pump and piping network and is incinerated in a flare similar to industrial plants in the region. Funding for recycling the methane into a fuel source is being considered. The facility currently has enough land to last the parish 26 more years, but this lifespan could be extended by increased recycling efforts parish wide.
Our final travel destination of the day took us to the southern parish government campus on Club Deluxe Rd. in Hammond. There we first met with Director Dennis Wallette and staff from the Tangipahoa Mosquito Abatement District #1. It was very eye-opening to see the science behind the task of controlling the mosquito population in the area in a manner safe for all human and animal populations. Residents may not be aware that the chemicals used do affect bees, but a beekeeper location program coupled with GPS tracking and specialized flow metered equipment allows programmed spray patterns for truck and plane operations to avoid impact to sensitive local honeybee populations.
We then walked next door to visit the Animal Shelter and their Deputy Director/Kennel Manager, Crystal Hawkins. This department serves dual roles as both a law enforcement and animal adoption/population control facility. Their hard work with the spay/neuter program and increased use of microchipping and public education has reduced the number of intakes from 8000 dogs and cats last year to 5000 this year. The facility currently has a 94% adoption rate and they are adding more kennels this year to house more animals. They offer low cost adoptions and microchipping as well as a low cost spay and neuter program for qualified residents. A local non-profit, Tangi Animal Friends, among other things, helps with professional photos for social media and professional vet care. Please consider adoption the next time you are looking to add a furry family member to your household.
Our last stop for the day was the Clausen Building, which houses the GIS, Permit Office\Code Enforcement, and Community Development. First up was the Permit\Code Enforcement Department, represented by Building Official Nic Leblanc and Chief Code Enforcement Officer Nathan Diamond (our fellow classmate). They are responsible for building permit approval and overall code enforcement from litter to tall grass and beyond. They shared with us current plans for implementation of LIDAR topography data in combination with existing parish wide GIS mapping data to model flood patterns for rain events, which will help in flood response and sustainable growth. After, Bill Moorman, GIS Specialist, expanded upon the ongoing GIS mapping efforts that allows visualization of mapping data for both parish employees and residents. This mapping technology has been made more user-friendly in recent years by separating out layers of information in a user-friendly "app" format. They are also working with Waze to provide local real-time traffic information sharing. Bridget Bailey, Planning Department Community Development Director, wrapped up the session by informing us that subdivision regulations were recently amended to establish requirements and incentives for accommodation of 100-year rain events and preservation of onsite wetlands for critical stormwater retention. This will allow sustainable growth for our parish's development while managing increased flood risk, a critical goal for the Community Development office within the past several years.
In closing, our class's overall perspective on the day's experience was one of pride and a sense of our parish being a leader amongst our peer parishes in several respects including technology, emergency preparedness, and sustainable growth, all while keeping a focus on people and service that retains Tangipahoa's distinct small town feel that has persisted for 150 years and counting.
We would like to extend thanks to all department heads and their respective employees for taking time to share with us their department's role in Tangipahoa Parish government and recent accomplishments that contribute to making our parish great. Also, a sincere thanks to both Nick Gagliano and Ronda Durbin, Parish President\CAO Executive Assistant, for facilitating the day. And, last but not least, a special thanks to the people that worked both in front of and behind the scenes to provide our class with meals, snacks, and transportation throughout the day. We ask your readers to visit www.tangipahoa.org for additional information or questions they have on parish government.
Nichole Liuzza, Eric Aymond, and Paul Morvant
Leadership Tangipahoa, Class of 2019-2020
Leadership Tangipahoa, Class of 2019-2020
Keller Williams Realty Services
Keller Williams Realty Services
Nichole Liuzza is a Realtor specializing in helping home buyers find their perfect place. She is a native of Tickfaw and a SLU alumnus. Her diverse background includes the performing arts, retail/restaurant management, hazardous waste management and residential home development. She now resides in Ponchatoula with her husband, Joey, and their 3 children.
Student Union Director
Southeastern Louisiana University
Student Union Director
Southeastern Louisiana University
Eric Aymond is the Director of the Student Union at Southeastern Louisiana University and is a 12-year employee of the institution. He is a graduate of Ponchatoula High School, and also earned his undergraduate degree in Management and his MBA from Southeastern. He is a lifelong resident of Ponchatoula, LA, where he currently resides with his wife and 3 children.
Paul Morvant is a licensed architect at Holly and Smith Architects in Hammond and has been employed there since 2008. He is a graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies and Master of Architecture degrees. He resides in Hammond with his wife, Gena, and their 2 children.