The fiscal administrator in charge of correcting the town of Sterlington’s dismal finances criticized The Ouachita Citizen Tuesday for publishing certain remarks he made that vexed town officials.
Last week, The Ouachita Citizen published a news report, “Administrator: Up to $1.6 million missing from town fund,” detailing remarks about Sterlington’s weak finances that I.M. “Junior” Shelton Jr. delivered to state lawmakers in Baton Rouge last month.
Two Sterlington officials disputed Shelton’s remarks. Some of the statements he made were inaccurate, they said.
During the Legislative Audit Advisory Council’s Sept. 12 meeting, Shelton diminished Sterlington officials’ previous efforts to build an independent water system and maintain a sewer system. Shelton also leveled criticism at Sterlington for an agreement with Capstone Metering LLC to incur some $2 million in debt.
Specifically, Shelton questioned the draws Sterlington made on the $2-million fund. For example, Sterlington made four draws on the account, including one draw of $516,000 for installing 170 water meters, one draw of $516,000 for installing 70 water meters, and one draw of more than $600,000 for installing 40 water meters.
As noted by the Legislative Audit Advisory Council’s chairman, the amounts drawn from Sterlington’s $2-million fund did not appear to match the written expenditures.
“When I ask for particulars, I’m not really getting any information,” Shelton told the Legislative Audit Advisory Council. “From our side too, I cannot find where that money went.”
During the Town Council’s meeting Tuesday night, Shelton held up a copy of last week’s Ouachita Citizen and asked the newspaper to pay attention.
“This headline is salacious,” Shelton said. “It is also misleading. Nowhere in this article have I said that anybody in this town has took any money.”
Shelton offered a new headline: “Fiscal administrator says no evidence of anybody stealing money from the town of Sterlington.”
“If I thought there was something, I wouldn’t have put it in a report to the (state Legislative) Auditor,” Shelton continued. “I would’ve called the Attorney General’s office.
“I really hope that’s a headline. Because this is why I refuse to give interviews. Because I can’t trust my own words being written right. Now they’re just going to make things up.”
Shelton’s diatribe toward The Ouachita Citizen was misleading. As he pointed out, Shelton never said anyone took money from Sterlington. What Shelton failed to acknowledge: The Ouachita Citizen never reported that either.
Shelton’s remarks to the Legislative Audit Advisory Council, including those about the questionable draws on the $2-million fund, were preserved in an audio-video recording available online at www.legis.la.gov
Following the Legislative Audit Advisory Council meeting in September, The Ouachita Citizen submitted a public records request to Sterlington for all documents concerning the town’s business with Capstone Metering. Sterlington was unable to produce any documents detailing the draws or expenditures made from the $2-million fund.
After Tuesday’s meeting, The Ouachita Citizen began to ask Shelton to elaborate, but he interrupted the newspaper’s inquiry.
“No,” said Shelton, holding up a pointed finger. “No comment.”
The tone of Shelton’s remarks to the Legislative Audit Advisory Council were at odds with his customary presentations at Town Council meetings. At Town Council meetings, Shelton has declined to speak critically of the town or its officials, describing the town’s poor financial condition in optimistic terms. When Shelton appeared in Baton Rouge, his remarks about the “very rural” people managing Sterlington were pointed.
Mayor Caesar Velasquez and Town Council member Ron Hill each challenged some of Shelton’s remarks to the Legislative Audit Advisory Council as inaccurate.
After the Town Council adjourned its meeting Tuesday, Hill indicated he had previously sent Shelton a private email about the newspaper’s report. Hill reiterated his position, pointedly, in front of the mayor and other council members.
Specifically, Shelton was wrong to have said that town officials were “trying desperately to start a water company,” according to Hill.
“The characterization of the town as being desperate to start a water system is completely inaccurate,” Hill said. “That made me madder than anything in that article, of which there was plenty to be angry about. There was no desperation in Sterlington. It was about controlling our own destiny.”
According to Hill, if Sterlington had secured the “proper court decisions,” the town would have had an operational water system by now.
After Shelton took over as fiscal administrator, he told the Legislative Audit Advisory Council that he instructed the mayor and Town Council to “stop talking” about launching a water system. As fiscal administrator, Shelton has complete authority over the town’s financial decisions. The mayor and Town Council serve strictly in an advisory capacity.
After the meeting, Velasquez echoed Hill’s frustration with Shelton’s remarks in Baton Rouge.
During the Legislative Audit Advisory Council’s meeting, Shelton criticized Sterlington for incurring $11 million for a municipal sewer system.
“You would think they would have a state-of-the-art sewer system,” Shelton said, at the time. “These bonds started coming in in 2011. It’s a dilapidated system. I don’t know where the money went. I have a thought that they used it just to operate, but I don’t know that yet.”
Concerning Shelton’s remarks, Velasquez said, “The sewer system is not dilapidated.”
“We do have 37 lift stations throughout the city,” said Velasquez, who noted that sometimes a sewer lift station encounters a flow problem. “Some of them are older than 20 years. Some are newer. As with anything else electrical or mechanical, at some point it’s going to fail. In the past, some of the maintenance has been overlooked. Trying to catch up years later sometimes takes more money. I don’t think it was completely accurate to say the system was dilapidated.”
“That frustrated me to hear because it wasn’t completely accurate,” Velasquez added.
On another front, the Town Council finally adopted an ordinance imposing a flat fee of $68 a month on residential sewer users and $78 to $88 a month on commercial sewer users.
The vote to adopt the sewer ordinance was unanimous.
Prior to the vote, Shelton indicated he would have the court enforce the ordinance if Town Council members bucked his plan to raise sewer rates.
“If the council were not to pass this, as fiscal administrator, I can take this to the judge,” Shelton said. “The judge could sign it and it becomes an ordinance.”
According to Shelton, the sewer rate increase would help pay for the sewer system’s ongoing maintenance as well as cover the town’s debt service payments.
Velasquez lamented the decision to raise sewer rates twice in the same year. The Town Council previously raised sewer rates in June.
“We hoped it would be enough, but it seems that in order to get the town solvent, the fiscal administrator decided we needed more,” Velasquez said.
“Sewer fees were previously based on usage but it’s going to be a flat fee from now on.”
Velasquez voiced concerns that Sterlington might be headed in a direction that negatively affected senior citizens in the town.
“This is not exactly what I would have wanted,” Velasquez said. “We have made some changes. I have talked to him about issues with our elderly here in Sterlington. I just ask the citizens of Sterlington to work with us and we’ll do everything we can.”
Editor's Note: This news report has been updated to reflect Mayor Caesar Velasquez's point that only a few of the town's 37 sewer lift stations occasionally have sewer flow problems.