By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – Even with eight Slidell City Council members ready to give Mayor Freddy Drennan the authorization on Tuesday night to negotiate a purchase of the Pinewood Country Club property, there was one councilman who remained determined to make it very clear he did not agree with the deal.
Councilman Val Vanney, who has steadfastly opposed the city spending close to $1 million for the purchase of over 90 acres of land presently known as Pinewood Country Club, turned what could have been a routine vote into a council meeting stretching well over two hours.
Vanney, even knowing the vote was going to overwhelmingly go against him, raised every objection he could think of to the Pinewood purchase and made several criticisms of the current administration and past administrations that brought an impassioned response from Sam Caruso and Freddy Drennan.
In the end, the authorization for Drennan to seek a deal was passed by an 8-1 vote.
Vanney, along with three regular local residents who virtually always disagree with whatever vote the council seems to be leaning towards, joined forces on the night to turn what could have been a quick vote on the Pinewood situation into a long night for the handful of residents who showed up.
Bringing the most vehement response from former Mayor Caruso and current Mayor Drennan was the accusation that the city isn’t doing enough for the south side drainage situation and therefore, shouldn’t be spending the $1 million of supplemental money for the Pinewood buy.
Caruso, who started what would end up as an emotional tirade against Vanney and others, was sent over the edge by comments suggesting the city has ignored the south side of Slidell, which admittedly is hit hardest by heavy rains or hurricanes such as Katrina.
“Under my administration the south side of Slidell put in new pumps that tripled the pumping capacity for rains. We added another new pumping station and kept machines in the drainage canals to keep them clean,” he said. “I’m so tired of the resurgent negative talk suggesting we haven’t done enough for south Slidell.”
Caruso also responded to questions about retention ponds put in during his administration, with criticism that testing wasn’t done to check their effectiveness.
“We have two retention ponds that were put in near Fountain Estates and off Highway 11. One of them holds 17 million gallons of water and the other holds 52 million gallons of water,” he said. “Testing? You are asking if we tested to see if they are effective?!?! When the first 52 million gallons of water goes into the pond, it is 52 million gallons that don’t go into living rooms, bedrooms and your dining room. Of course the ponds were tested by that mere information.”
Drennan followed at the podium and sternly noted to Vanney and the other critics that the city has done over $10 million of drainage related work for south Slidell in the past five years and is currently in the midst of design work for over $60 million more work coming from FEMA grants.
“It really irks me to hear that we are doing nothing for the south side of Slidell when we have done millions of dollars of work already and have so much more to come,” Drennan said.
Vanney maintained his opposition to spending the $1 million for the Pinewood purchase, noting “we have city employees in poverty and police officers who can barely survive. I see this as a bad investment for the city.”
The idea to purchase the Pinewood land came up about 11 months ago when the shareholders told Councilman Bill Borchert they were going to close and probably be foreclosed on. Borchert took the lead by working on a proposal for the city to buy the land, seeing the potential to purchase over 90-acres for less than $12,000 an acre as a “one time opportunity.”
The City Council voted down the purchase several months ago when it first came before them, but following that vote, several eastern Parish Council members stepped forward and got support from Parish President Pat Brister to create a cooperative agreement to utilize the land. The parish is putting up over 40 acres of land in east St. Tammany and offering to spend over $3 million to help with drainage, engineering and physical work to build retention ponds and create a comprehensive drainage plan for all of eastern St. Tammany.
Councilmen Glynn Pichon and Jay Newcomb both voted against the purchase in the first round, but changed their vote, along with Sam Abney and Warren Crockett, for the new proposal since the parish came on board.
“If Pat Brister and the parish don’t make the commitment we now have,” Newcomb said. “I wouldn’t have changed my mind. I applaud the spirit of cooperation and I believe Pat Brister will follow through on her commitment.”
Pichon noted what he believes will be improvement to over 200 homes designated as “repetitive losses” from flooding as a key to changing his vote, along with research that now shows the improvement in drainage for much of the north side of Slidell.
“I think we will look back on this in years to come and see a huge benefit to the city,” he added.
Vanney, after listening to Caruso and Drennan respond to his criticism of the city not doing enough for “other things that we know need fixing,” said he sees the purchase as “a slap in the face to city employees.”
Vanney also tried to halt the vote by noting the legal description of the land in the resolution was incorrect. City Attorney Bryan Haggerty said the correct legal description would be in any potential purchase deal that Drennan negotiates.