In 1942, the federal government asked Ponchatoula High School to work on a homeroom wartime guidance program. The report which Principal Will Ed Butler submitted was the basis for the national high school victory corps in which youngsters all over the country collected scrap metal and worked to add their bit to wartime efforts.
The online adjudicated property auctions will eliminate blight while restoring significant, annually recurring revenues to the City from property taxes that had previously gone unpaid. “We are looking forward to our partnership with CivicSource to help return previously vacant land and properties back to use and commerce,” explains Ramona Tara’ Umbach, Tax Collector for the City of Ponchatoula.
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.
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.