The mayor began with words few Louisiana municipalities ever hear about their own, “The city is financially sound and debt free.”
Careful planning, careful spending, and careful saving seemed to be the unspoken background of the presentation, showing how it’s possible for a city this size to maintain such a glowing record.
The mayor began with words few Louisiana municipalities ever hear about their own, “The city is financially sound and debt free.”
A graduate of Ponchatoula High School, Douglas brings to City Hall ten years of experience in mechanical seals, afterward earning degrees in Accounting and Economics. To stay current in his field, he is active in the Louisiana Municipal Association of which Ponchatoula is a member, The Louisiana Municipal Clerks Association, its national and its International Institute of Municipal Clerks Association.
Hugs and handshakes, memories and musing, laughter and longing – the scene behind the scenes as USS Ponchatoula shipmates from across the country began their reunion in the Strawberry Room of Microtel the day before the official ceremonies at City Hall. If it hadn’t been for the bright shirts with USS Ponchatoula embroidered on them, these folks are so much a part of Ponchatoula, one couldn’t tell the shipmates from the residents in their greetings. Some said they can’t make every reunion but are sure to make every Ponchatoula reunion, that the people are so friendly, it feels more like home!
With so many compliments to the Ponchatoula Street Department for the record-breaking quick festival cleanup after the Strawberry Festival, a frequent question is “How do they do that?”
In a recent interview, Street Supervisor Charles Zweifel explained the difference between a typical day and Festival time.
“On a regular day, our crews head out at 7:00 a.m. to fill work orders from City Hall, for example, ‘A ditch needs to be cleaned out.’ Our crew that handles culverts and ditches investigates, determining whether trash has been thrown out and stopped up a culvert or dirt has filled in and needs digging out.
“Another crew is over tree and grass-cutting and as summer progresses, we often have to use men from other crews to keep up. Back in the ‘yard’, someone handles repair from the bucket truck to playground equipment saving the city money by not having to send work out.
“Someone else picks up the parks and areas around bar rooms, bringing trash to dumpsters as well as sorting through recycling materials.”
Nine years ago, the city purchased its own Mad Vac, a four-wheel vacuum cleaner designed to pick up litter five-times faster than one worker. Its daily driver, David May, is especially adept at grabbing paper with the vac’s long elephant nozzle. As Zweifel added, “These are all things we do every day.”
It Takes A Team
Then comes Strawberry Festival time and the entire city crew goes into fired-up cleanup mode! The Festival board signs a contract with a garbage company and the two groups meet with the mayor, the chief of police and Zweifel to make plans. Mayor Bob Zabbia, ever litter-conscious, contracts a private company to have a huge street sweeper scheduled to clean the city streets each night of the Festival instead of just at the end as many festivals in the parish do.
Hours are immediately increased for all the yard guys. Festival weekend, the crews leave their regular work to start Friday at noon opening time and work until 11:30 p.m., Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until 1:30 a.m., and Sunday 8:00 a.m. until 12:00 midnight, putting in some 42-and-a-half extra hours of work in that weekend alone. They work non-stop picking up litter and emptying garbage cans.
Zweifel said the city owns 175 trash cans, putting 100 in the park and 75 downtown. The city saves traveling time during Festival weekend by having 15 workers set up in Sewer and Water Department Dave Opdenhoff’s yard across from the park. But even that close, it’s a chore.
Saturday is the most stressful day with the crew frequently making their way through thousands of people to replace full cans with empties. Then they try to get back out, often a long ‘way around to the corner of North Sixth and Willow where two garbage trucks with two men await them.
Meanwhile, at North Sixth and West Hickory, another garbage truck awaits the crew downtown with their barrels of trash. It takes 1-3 city workers to assist at each truck. By Saturday, two garbage trucks have already been filled and sent off to the landfill.
If an average Festival goer hung around after the loudspeaker announced each day’s festivities officially closed, he would see the city crew swarm the park grounds like hungry mosquitoes picking up everything from beer cups to uneaten onion mums. And, of course, David May is all over the place with the Mad Vac.
What a lot of citizens don’t know is that the man in charge, Charles Zweifel, brings 32-and-a-half years of experience to Ponchatoula from Jefferson Parish where he helped supervise the work crews that cleaned after their Mardi Gras parades. He started as a laborer with the parish right out of school and worked his way up to Supervisor 3, over maintenance yards, concrete, asphalt, heavy equipment, and drainage. (One of the tips Zweifel brought with him is to blow the debris onto the streets for easier pickup by street sweepers with their brushes and vacuum units.)
So now Ponchatoula’s secret to spotless Festival cleanup is out of the bag. With all of this going on, it’s no wonder residents awake on Monday morning to a city seemingly untouched by the weekend crowds of 250,000 visitors.
On a side note, Zweifel and his wife, Shirley, moved to Ponchatoula early in 2005 to get daughters Erica (Viola) and Casey in the school system. He has been Superintendent of Streets and Parks since 2009. Humbly, Zweifel gave credit and appreciation for the cleanup success to the cooperation of Mayor Bob Zabbia and Executive Assistant Rhonda Sheridan, Police Chief Bry Layrisson and the Strawberry Festival Board.
Few people know that interdepartmental parish and city agencies often come together in cooperative agreements to solve problems and make improvements, saving considerable time, effort and expense for both.
Little did Jeff Daniels know he was in training for Ponchatoula City Councilman when he saw first-hand how interdepartmental agencies of the parish and the city came together to solve a major drainage problem in his Millville neighborhood over a year ago.
Neighbors grew concerned when each rain brought more standing water than ever before, over the streets and finally inches from houses. The city does not have the manpower or equipment for clearing canals, so working with Mayor Bob Zabbia and the city crew, and knowing so many people from his years with Entergy, Daniels contacted District Administrator Kylie Bates of the Tangipahoa Parish Gravity Drainage District Number 1.
Bates was joined by Chuck Spangler of Spangler Engineering to investigate. Walking every inch of ditches and canals, Spangler found blockage from erosion in a canal. (Constriction in a channel creates backwater which increases velocity causing more erosion.)
Further investigation showed the canal didn’t belong to the city or the parish, but to each homeowner along it.
This meant getting signed permission from each homeowner to do what was needed to clear the canal. Daniels collected the signatures for Parish Councilmen Bobby Cortez and Harry Lavine to present to the Parish along with a request for assistance. After approval, work was begun.
The parish did the work, the city assumed the responsibility and the canal was cleared, aiding drainage from properties even north of Millville.
It was because of his interest and help that Daniels was approached by numerous people asking him to run for City Councilman to fill an upcoming vacancy which he won.
Kiley Bates continues to be of valuable assistance from the parish in consulting due to his experience as well as his Industrial Technical education at Millsaps and engineering degree from Southeastern and LSU.
This example is one of many in which the city of Ponchatoula has partnered with other agencies.
To further illustrate: Each hurricane season since Katrina, Ponchatoula Fire Chief Rodney Drude and Mayor Bob Zabbia sign intergovernmental agreements with St. Bernard parish officials that should the lower parish need to evacuate, officials can bring their equipment, offices and important records here. (And they have, being housed at the Fire Department.) If needed, they will provide additional help to our community.
Another help is having Parish President Robbie Miller, Mayor Zabbia and neighboring leaders hold positions on the Regional Planning Commission which meets monthly in New Orleans, allowing area officials to know the latest in works and funding available.
Through this commission, the parishes of Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. John, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa get certain allotted funds each year for projects such as transportation which include items such as feasibility studies and reports for sidewalks.
Just recently, the Barringer Road Sidewalk Project has been included in the Tangipahoa Improvement Program (TIP). Also, this commission has aided the city in hastening the widening of Highway 51, a project which has been anticipated for twelve years.
At the parish level, bids for road improvements and overlay require such a volume of work and expense that the city can “piggyback” onto the parish to obtain high quality work at a lower price through a co-operative agreement, allowing the city to stretch its dollar rather than bid out on its own. Thus, when a parish road and a city street meet, the work continues all at one time.
Another example is the way the parish Council on Aging and the city have worked together to provide daily bus transportation, allowing more Ponchatoula citizens to get employment, shop and get to medical appointments.
Ponchatoula city government and parish government continue to work hand in hand in mutual agreement resulting in major accomplishments for both.
Often, visitors and even leaders of other municipalities are astounded at the number of projects completed, underway or planned for the future by the City of Ponchatoula, asking how so much can be accomplished by a town this size.
A simple “It’s a lot of work by a lot of people” is offered and true but doesn’t begin to answer the question even in just one area, that of state Capital Outlay Funds so beneficial to Ponchatoula.
Recently at City Hall, Executive Assistant to the Mayor, Rhonda Sheridan, shed light on what goes on behind the scenes as she described the importance of keeping up-to-date with the latest government requirements. Two agencies all cities must register with are System for Award Management (SAMS.gov) and DUNS (Dun and Bradstreet), major hubs for grant projects.
“State agencies assign each municipality certain codes that are required for a city to stay in the state database. Password changes are ongoing and required from every thirty to ninety days,” she said. “One cannot even ‘talk’ to someone at state level without proper codes.”
Pointing to work areas and file cabinets stacked with project folders, Sheridan continued: “Just keeping up with those codes and passwords could be a full-time job. Numerous municipalities seeing our successes call for our office’s help in getting started but when they see the tremendous amount of work necessary to try to get help from the state, many soon give up. But it’s necessary. Another necessity, along with the gigantic amount of paper work, is a good respectful working relationship with the people in each organization or department at the state level. We are fortunate to have this.”
Sheridan used two current major projects to explain further – the new downtown parking lot and the Consolidated Law Complex.
“For each of these, we work with the Division of Administration Office of Facility Planning and Control to apply for capital outlay funds.”
For background on the two properties, Sheridan told about the good working relationship the city has had with First Guaranty Bank along the way, how the former bank on North Sixth for some two or three years was already housing Ponchatoula detectives and evidence room in the west side of the building for one dollar a year and their utilities while the bank was fully operational on the east side.
“The goal of the city has been to have all Law Enforcement under one roof and First Guaranty was helpful in offering to sell each property for less than appraisal value, the second being the vacant lot at the corner of West Hickory and North Sixth, which when completed will park some ninety vehicles along with charging stations for electric cars,” she continued.
Her example: “The appraised price of the parking lot was $666,000 and First Guaranty asked $500,000. The city applied for capital outlay funds for this amount, was approved, and pays only 25% of that amount.”
The bids brought in Duplantis Engineering with Chad Danos and Civil Design, Tommy Buckles. Foret Construction of Thibodeaux is in charge of building the parking lot.
Sheridan said another help to the city is that from Mayor Bob Zabbia’s forty-five years’ private practice with engineering firms, he is able to do some of the preparatory study and work with a savings from $1,500 upward on each project that other municipalities have to pay outsiders to do.
When Mayor Zabbia joined the interview, he said, “A big help is that Ponchatoula is one of few municipalities that is debt free.”
He added, “Unfortunately, part of this was due from the misfortune of others. When so many Katrina victims relocated here, they had to buy everything to start over. Taxes soared from their purchases. So, being debt free, when we are approved for capital outlay funds, we are able to pay our 25% immediately.”
He credited former State Representative Tank Powell, Senator Bodi White and State Representative Steve Pugh for their assistance at the state level for Ponchatoula’s progress.
Asked about City Council monthly meetings, Sheridan said that agendas go out to each member the Wednesday before the regular Monday evening meetings.
The mayor added that because immediate action is sometimes required when members cannot meet, the Council passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to act, signing to expedite or complete a project rather than wait until the next meeting.
For the future, one of the biggest and most expensive proposed rehabilitations for which state capital outlay funds will be sought is the major sewerage renovation when a “leak” test (smoke test) will be run throughout the whole city and an engineering firm will evaluate and put a price tag on the project. This could be one million dollars.
The mayor says that with the state finances in their current condition, only time will tell how much money can be available to municipalities.
A recent tour of Ponchatoula City Hall showed just how large the physical facility is along with changes made to utilize every foot of space while offering protection to the property.
The “Hardening Project” is the result of the FEMA-funded grant’s goal of protecting any open areas of glass and utility systems with reinforcement.
This grant came through bids taken by the parish for many parish buildings and is probably the first extensive local improvement project since City Hall moved in. The total cost was $360,000 with the grant’s share 80% and the city’s, 20%.
Called “hardening” or “thickening”, double-paned windows replace traditional ones and thick, impact-resistant material protects the air-conditioning units and generator. For further safety, a large fire escape now reaches from top floor to ground.
The building was originally Bohning’s Supermarket and, little known to the shopping public, had a large second floor overhead. Early in the current administration, a sturdy, wide inner staircase was added and, more recently, a secure climate-controlled record-retention room built to house documents. (Regulations for retaining documents are strict as some must be kept for months, some for years and some, forever.)
Included in Ponchatoula’s 20% part of the project, the city furnished new doors, gutters, and painting.
Outdoor landscaping had already been included in the city’s budget. Left to do in the city budget are improvements to the employee parking lot and painting.
Three new offices have been added for the building official, human resources and finance departments and new faces have joined the existing staff to assist the public.
Long known for its good water, Ponchatoula took it seriously last year when reports of isolated incidents of discoloration reached City Hall, ordering tests as well as reviewing the entire system’s history.
To update the public on what is being done, Superintendent of Ponchatoula Sewerage and Water, Dave Opdenhoff, recently gave a behind-the-scenes tour of the department’s operation and history since his hiring in 1988.
His career Navy background brought years of study and experience concerning water. One area of his work onboard ships was that of converting sea water to drinking water.
He continued adding to his certifications in this field when, upon retiring from the Navy, he and his wife, the former Barbara McMurray, settled in Ponchatoula, her hometown.
The State of Louisiana certifies in five categories: water production, water distribution, water treatment, wastewater collection and wastewater treatment.
Ponchatoula does not require a water treatment certification because it uses ground water only. Based on population, Ponchatoula requires Class Three certifications. Opdenhoff went beyond in his studies, earning Class Four certifications which qualify him to work in larger cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
At the time of his employment, there were two water towers – one on Tower Road and one at Athletic Park. Water in the system flowed from east to west with that from Athletic Park mingling with water from Tower Road.
There were no government requirements to disinfect water and later, with the Federal Clean Water Act, came the stipulation cities could maintain their systems without disinfecting if testing showed no negative results.
There had never been any negative results in Ponchatoula’s water but “seeing the handwriting on the wall” and learning it was just a matter of time before disinfecting would be required, the City starting injecting chlorine some twenty years ago.
The water was occasionally discolored but it was never a matter of publicity because every municipality had (and has) discoloration at times. Back then, the remedy was a simple matter of opening a fire hydrant and flushing.
After Katrina’s population explosion, Mayor Bob Zabbia made the decision to add an additional water well for storage.
Katrina brought a lot of unexpected things to light, one such, not enough emergency generators. With lessons learned from the magnitude of the storm, the town’s planning included applying for and receiving grants to equip about 90% sewerage pumping stations with emergency backup generators.
The next step at this point, Mayor Zabbia, and the City Council began the search for a site for the new well to help meet the needs of the growing population.
After negotiating with Dr. Melvin Allen, whose dental office was on a tract of land on Highway 51 North, the city procured a parcel of this land to drill the new well and construct a tower at the same location.
After construction began, when it was determined the parcel of land was not large enough to accommodate the tower, no additional land there could be purchased; thus, the city then bought land from Ed Hoover across 51 North with sufficient room to construct the new water tower. With its being built about the time of Walmart’s arrival, many residents mistakenly thought Walmart built or paid for the tower but it was all funded and paid for by the City with State Capital Outlay funds.
New Well Causes Challenges
With the new tower came a couple of problems: 1. Its water flowed from west to east and this “stirring” caused occasional complaints of discolored water. 2. In 2014, the state changed chlorine requirements because of a brain-eating amoeba. This increased the levels from “trace” amounts of chlorine to “0.5 parts per million” at the end of the system. Opdenhoff added he believes Louisiana has the highest mandated residual chlorine amounts in the nation.
This was the beginning of the severe discoloration problem and the old habits of flushing fire hydrants in selected areas no longer worked.
One of the biggest puzzles was (and is) why the water of side-by-side neighbors differs. Neighbor A has discolored water and next-door Neighbor B has perfectly clear water.
Trying to figure this out was running officials “crazy” and they called in a reputable expert, knowledgeable in the field of water who works with the state and numerous municipalities, Bill Travis of Thornton, Musso, and Bellemin, Inc., based in Zachary, La.
After studies and testing, Travis reached the conclusion that the towers at Athletic Park and Tower Road showed “no measurable amounts of manganese” but the new well on Veteran’s (U.S. 51) did.
Also, numerous brown-water samples from residents were tested and showed “measurable amounts of manganese”.
This new tower had been on-line about a year so now the entire distribution had manganese. At that time, the Athletic Park tower was out of service for rehabilitation so the majority of the water was being produced at the Hwy 51 well with the flow going from west to east, stirring the water more.
The question became, “How to treat manganese?” This was not just a Ponchatoula problem but a parish and state problem.
Problem Solving Begins
The prescribed treatment was the use of a “sequestering” agent that is injected into the water.
Manganese bonds with water molecules and cannot be seen or tasted. But, add chlorine, and the molecules come out of suspension and present as discoloration.
Thus the city started with the sequestering agent and phosphate.
Our water is naturally super soft. When visitors or new residents come from the North, they are usually shocked when doing laundry with their usual amounts of detergent, they are overrun with suds. Or, when bathing, they can’t seem to rinse well from so much soap. The problem with “soft water” — it can be corrosive to pipes. The water technicians ran “coupons” – steel/copper based on 30, 60, and 90 days, determining City water could be corrosive to pipes.
Their recommendation was that in addition to chlorine, the remaining two wells have phosphate added. This is currently being done.
Coupon testing continues to see if treatment is having an effect or if it needs to be increased or decreased.
In addition to having water chemically analyzed and performing corrective actions, Ponchatoula has hired a firm to do a “modeling” of the water system based on information provided: pipe size, storage elevations, pumping, etc.
This firm is creating a computer model which the city will be able to use to confirm pressure and flow at any location.
Modeling will show things such as these: 1. If an area does not have the desired flow, it could mean a valve is closed or broken or the original map of piping is flawed. This will allow the City to pinpoint the area and take corrective action. 2. It will enhance the fire department’s ability to fight fires plus help homeowners in another way as state insurance will use this in determining the fire department’s rating.
An Electronic Help is Added
Further aiding the City, Ponchatoula is one of a few municipalities in the area to have a SCADA System. (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition)
This computerized system monitors the sewer system every two hours and the water system every two minutes. Instead of the prior countless trips made to twenty-plus locations day and night, now a large screen in Opdenhoff’s office shows each location complete with what each well is doing: how much water is being produced, volume in a tank, pressure, how much chlorine, etc. In addition, it gives the ability for his cell phone to turn a well on or off from wherever he is.
Example: Recently SCADA showed a problem with a chlorine injection system, one that was unable to be done at the tank. Opdenhoff took that well out of service and it was out the entire time of the freeze. The two remaining wells kept volume and pressure exactly where they were supposed to be.
While the well was down for repair to the injector, the City moved ahead with inspection of the tank. That was due this summer but with winter being the lowest use of water, a crew drained and inspected this tank on Tower Road that usually stores 300,000 gallons of water. This was the first time since its construction in 1982. Now it is recommended every five years.
Workers were pleased and surprised at what was found in the tank: There was some accumulation of sand in the bottom, stains on walls, and rust in the roof, less than expected.
While the well is down and the tank drained, a hired company will come in to pressure wash, super-chlorinate, and identify what needs to be done for rehabilitation to that tower. (Rehab is scheduled for 2018 so that is from July 2017 forward. The evaluation will be sent to an engineering firm to design the scope and solicit bids for rehabilitation.)
In the meantime, after cleaning, super chlorination and refilling the tank, it will sit for forty-eight hours before water samples will be taken and delivered to the Health Department in Amite for testing. Twenty-four hours later, a second sample will be taken and turned in. If no problems are found and the results come in early enough, the tank will be put back into service Thursday evening, January 26th – if not, Friday, January 27th.
The SCADA system does calculations and monthly reports on water usage and can compare rainwater and how much is getting into the sewer system. It has taken a year to get this far and only one site is left to be on-line.
The recent winter freeze came at a time of year when the normal use of water is at a low of 850,000 gallons a day, but customers dripping faucets to prevent broken pipes used over two-million gallons each day of the freezing temperatures. With all this use, the city did not flush any lines and the few reports of discolored water were not unusual in any municipalities after dripping faucets. Next item the City is addressing is a “soft” flush of all fire hydrants to clear the stems of each before the major flushing of the system. This “soft” flush already has begun in the southwest section and will continue across the City by section. The major flushing will be conducted after the modeling maps are completed so the system can isolate areas and flush without disturbing the entire system.
Further learned, no water provider can ever guarantee no discolored water. Such things as a house fire, a broken pipe, filling water tanks from fire hydrants by commercial businesses (without asking) can stir water systems enough to cause discolored water. With the work that has been accomplished over the past couple of years and the final system-flushing, incidents of discolored water should be few and far between.
Meanwhile, Opdenhoff explained the rehabilitation work done on the Athletic Park Tower. From the ground below, the average person can see only the nice shiny paint job, but much more was done. Rusted-out areas of the catwalks were removed and replaced. Ladders inside and out were removed and replaced to meet current safety codes. Workers replaced the rusted-out top vent and enlarged the overflow pipe along with rewelding the fill pipe outside the tank, replaced all threaded fasteners, removed all finishes inside and out to bare metal to ensure no remnants of lead paint remained before priming and painting.
In addition to the tank rehabilitation, the electrical system was upgraded from the 1963 equipment to the most up-to-date electronic equipment.
With normal inspections of the tank at five-year intervals, any minor issues can be addressed and this rehab should keep the tank in service for at least the next twenty years.
The City requests that any citizen with a water problem contact Ponchatoula City Hall at 386-6484.