Tuesday, August 15, a record capacity crowd of 94 packed the Rotary Hut as part of the Chamber of Commerce’s Brown Bag Lunch Summer Series for the annual State of the City address by Mayor Bob Zabbia. Eagerly anticipating what they knew to be a positive report, they weren’t disappointed.
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. Mayor Zabbia said the $10.4 million-dollar budget accepted in June is a result of sales tax, mainly due to retail businesses attracted to the city, and property tax and fees which are also strong and brisk. “When I first took office, the assessed valuation of all property was $43-$44 million, but with the strong residential and business swing, that has climbed to $52.6 million,” he added.
“The raised monthly collection projections of $250,000 to $280,000 are already $100,000 over those projections in the first two reporting periods of the year. Looking forward, another $2 million in tax is expected from the $20 million nursing home under construction across from Café NOLA. Just the night before, an additional 9.7 acres on Northeast I-55 service road was annexed where Jani King plans to build a $40 million corporate headquarters along with retail space. Under consideration and in the usual confidential stage, a third party has expressed interest in acreage also along Veteran’s Highway in front of Walmart.
Zabbia explained other ways the city is able to get more for less: “Having fund balances has allowed us to capitalize on projects in which we have to match the state.”
Similar to an individual having a good credit reference and savings, the city qualifies at the top of municipality lists when applying for state capital outlay matching funds for needed projects. Example: Limited parking along Main Street hurting business resulted in the new parking lot on North Sixth and West Hickory, a $660,000 purchase and construction cost of which the state paid 75% and the city 25%.
The planned Law Enforcement Complex began with the purchase two years ago of the old Homestead Building, later Guaranty Bank. The mayor thanked First Guaranty for allowing the use of the rear of the building for detectives for only the cost of utilities. The first phase of this project is $950,000 with $726,000 of that amount from state capital outlay. This will involve the complete renovation of the building, ie., mechanical, electrical and handicap accessibility. Senator Bodi White and Representative Steve Pugh worked diligently to get another $250,000 from the state, and advertising for that project should start by the end of the year.
Also, the Wagner property behind the building was purchased and will be used for law enforcement’s parking along with a facility for storage, evidence and stolen goods. The city has also filed an application for a million-dollar city-wide sewer rehabilitation project which will involve the city’s matching one million dollars.
Two other ways the city is able to see so much progress is that Mayor Zabbia serves on the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, enabling the city to learn early on about upcoming funding. Because of his forty years of experience in his personal profession, he saves the city both the engineering and administrative costs because he performs those duties for the city for free.
The Planning Commission opened a whole new realm of funding for transportation which involves several lighting projects. The city has secured grants to replace lighting and broken poles at the intersections of I-55 and LA 22. This will be done in a year to a year and a half, fast for approval of most projects as the lighting from along Highway 22 from Hoover Road from the east to U.S. 51 at RaceTrac on the west has been in the works since 2013.
“We’re told it seems no state highway has LED lighting and it was prolonged as it has ‘never been done before’. We’re also looking at a grant for LED lighting from West Pine Street down U.S. 51 to I-55,” Zabbia said, adding, “I’m negotiating with Entergy to get the rates.” Also since 2013, the city has worked to get funding for sidewalks from North Fifth Street to Wayne Street on the north side of East Pine. This will be $330,000 with the city’s part 20%.
Working with Regional Planning, the mayor’s long-wanted project of a sidewalk from Seventh Street/Barringer Road corner to U.S. 51 has already had the preliminary study. This sidewalk would then connect to the U.S. 51 widening project which is about four years away.
The widening involves an environmental study (underway now), followed by a public hearing, then a survey for identification and location of utilities to be relocated. The Downtown Pedestrian Project will be done in phases and involves $6 million of which the city will pay $2 million. As a result of studies done on the high volume of traffic and its speeding on the main street, reports show that having a median in place reduces speed.
Mayor Zabbia reported on projects out of sight such as the Waste Water Project of which the Aeration Project part ($320,000) the city is funding. A grant from FEMA is changing the disinfection systems and outlets, building higher levees and installing curtains to separate the ponds to slow the process to get the full treatment from each.
Reporting on the big ditches at South First and Esterbrook, the mayor stated that project has been underway for some seven years with the city’s complying with FEMA laws that continue to change. The next exciting news Mayor Zabbia was happy to share is the upcoming After School Program to coincide with Tangipahoa School System year. Having worked several years to bring this about, he proudly announced May Stilley as the director, having thirty years’ experience as teacher and principal. He, Stilley and city Human Resources Director, Lisa Jones, have visited other after-school programs for ideas while developing Ponchatoula’s.
“We won’t be copying other programs but making ours unique to fit the needs of our local school children who need extra help,” he said. “Teachers from D. C. Reeves, Martha Vinyard, St. Joseph and Ponchatoula Junior High will select the students who will ride school buses to the Community Center. Students will be greeted with a snack and social time before going to one of three classrooms, seating up to twenty each, for help with homework and tutoring. “Teachers hired will come from the three schools and know the curriculum and how to help. Because Mrs. Stilley wants parents involved and face-to-face, they’ll be expected to pick up their children.”
The cost will be $150 per child and already donations are coming in from businesses and individuals to help with supplies, food, and salaries.
As Mayor Zabbia concluded his presentation, he expressed with emotion how rewarding it is to serve as mayor of Ponchatoula.