It’s been a tough few years for the cats and dogs at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Animal Shelter.
“Money’s tight,” said Deano Bonano, Jefferson Parish Chief Administrative Assistant.
So tight, the shelter couldn’t afford to buy food for some of the 400 animals there on any given day.
“The animal shelter ran out of money,” says Anthony Francis, the Parish’s General Services Director.
One of the reasons money has been tight, a large amount of the shelter’s budget went to cutting the grass outside of the building.
“It’s a lot of acres,” Francis told us.
The animal shelter is being billed $1333.33 every time parish contractor the Ramelli Group cuts the grass. And records show sometimes they cut it four times a month. And for every cut, Ramelli charged the shelter for 66,666.70 square yards of grass.
FOX 8 asked Anthony Francis if the property is in fact 66,000 square yards.
“Yes. It’s a lot of property,” Francis said.
To put it in perspective, 66,000 is about the footprint of the Superdome times two.
So FOX 8 measured the property. Ramelli was actually cutting about 8,000 square yards of grass, or 58,000 less than they had been billing.
“I didn’t measure it. I don’t know,” Francis said.
But there’s more to this story than a plot of grass.
Instead of putting the grass cutting work out for public bid, the Aaron Broussard administration issued a Request For Proposal, or RFP. They made this a Professional Services Contract. That allows the parish to select from a group of companies and not pick the lowest bidder.
“There is no way grass cutting is a professional service,” Janet Howard of the Bureau of Governmental Research said.
Howard says Professional Services Contracts are supposed to only be used for work that requires skill or expertise like an attorney or architect.
“The grass is either cut or not,” Howard said. “You don’t need qualifications like a lawyer. The least experienced lawyer may not be the most qualified lawyer.”
And in this case, the Ramelli Group was not the lowest bidder, but was still awarded the lucrative contract. Jefferson Parish pays Ramelli about $3.2 million a year to cut grass throughout the parish.
“It’s incredulous,” Howard said. “There’s no way it’s a professional service. It looks like an end run around a procurement process that should have gone out to bid.”
For Professional Services Contracts, a committee of five parish employees ranks the companies that submit a bid. Those rankings are totaled and given to the council. Historically, the council has an unwritten rule of picking from the highest three ranked contractors.
Documents show Ramelli finished in the top three rankings. Ramelli came in second with 428 points. They finished behind Leroy Danos Maintenance Services but ahead of Corporate Green.
“The approach was Ramelli had done a good job and were the favorite of our Parkways Department,” new Parish President John Young said.
So six council members including Young voted to award the grass cutting contract to the second highest ranked company - Ramelli. Council member Chris Roberts was not in the chambers and didn’t vote.
Among the council members who voted for Ramelli was Louis Congemi. His top aide at the time, Nick Nicolosi, also did consulting work for Ramelli. In 2006, Nicolosi helped Ramelli secure a trash contract in Kenner.
Ramelli says Nicolosi wasn’t paid. And John Young says Nicolosi had no contact with him before the Ramelli vote.
Young says Ramelli was awarded the contract because of the quality of work.
“My understanding is he was in the top three,” Young said. “The feeling was he did a good job and the public was satisfied.”