EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH, LA (WAFB) - A tractor that was purchased with East Baton Rouge Parish tax dollars was being used to cut grass on private property, according to the EBR Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet.
The 9News Investigators received a video from a man, who asked to remain anonymous, shot on his cell phone. After some digging, the 9News Investigators found the lots being cut were privately owned and took that video to the city-parish.
“Well, I went out and asked him why he was cutting it and he told me it was the city’s lot and he was cutting it because it was a city lot, but it’s not a city lot. It’s owned by an individual,” said the man who recorded the video.
The 9News Investigators dug through property records and found the three lots on N Foster Drive between Airline and Glen Oaks were owned by Jake and Patricia Vanner. The three lots are side by side. Two of the three were purchased by the Vanners in 2010 and a third one was donated to them in 2001.
“How does the city cut somebody else’s lot? I mean, I can’t get them to cut my lot. Why have they been cutting that one?” asked the man. “Somebody’s got to be paying for that. Is my tax dollars paying for that?”
KIRAN CHAWLA: Is that a city-owned tractor that is cutting a private lot?
ROWDY GAUDET: So, in fact it is.
KIRAN: How long has the city been cutting these lots?
GAUDET: From our interviews, we determined almost ten years.
KIRAN: What is the policy when it comes to the city-parish stepping in and cutting a privately owned lot?
GAUDET: So we don’t cut private lots.
“Somebody has to know somebody. Why else would the city be cutting it on a regular basis?” said the man.
The 9News Investigators spoke by phone with Pat Vanner. She says she did not know anything about the grass cutting, only that her husband had a family friend doing it. Then, we went by their home.
KIRAN: Could we talk to you about the lot that you guys own?
PAT VANNER: Unless you ready to buy it ma’am.
KIRAN: Unless we’re looking to buy it?
VANNER: Hmmm.... Mmmm
KIRAN: Can you tell us who cuts the grass on that lot?
VANNER: I do not know.
KIRAN: Because if you look at this video, it’s the city-parish.
VANNER: Could you put down the camera? Sir, I’m talking to the lady.
Vanner did not want to talk on camera. The first video the man provided was from mid-September with a city-parish tractor cutting the lots. Then a few weeks later in early October, the city returned to cut the grass with a supervisor’s truck parked across the street.
“Sometimes, they cut it once a month. Sometimes they cut it twice a month, but they always cut it,” said the man. “Once we learned this was privately owned, we put a stop to it and in fact, we are notifying the lot owners that the city-parish was errantly cutting your lots and it’s no longer going to take place,” said Gaudet.
Gaudet says they launched an investigation as soon as the 9News Investigators brought it to their attention. He says they interviewed the guys who cut the property as well as the supervisor. “He said it’s a city-parish owned property. I have always cut it. It’s along that route. They travel up N Foster Drive. They cut the right of ways along N Foster, which is what city-parish does for cutting grass, and part of his schedule, he has always veered off and done these lots,” said Gaudet.
For at least a decade, Gaudet says the crews who cut that specific lot were under the impression it was a city lot. That’s why he says there was not an intentional misuse of funds on their part. Meanwhile, the man who provided the video admitted he paid a city worker cutting the lot to cut the grass on his own land. “My grass was high at the time. I didn’t have a lawnmower at the time. I went out there and he said, ‘Yeah, give me $40’ and he would cut my grass. I gave him $40 and he cut mine,” said the man. “They’re doing something under the table, for sure. Somebody is either paying them to cut the lot or they’re doing it providing a favor for some reason.”
“Unfortunately, it is a reality regardless if it is public sector or private sector. People make poor decisions. People misuse equipment or services,” said Gaudet.
Gaudet says the city will only cut a privately owned lot if it’s an overgrown lot with neighbors complaining about it, but then they put a lien on the property. The lots in question on N Foster were not overgrown. Now though, Gaudet says they did a thorough review to make sure any lots they cut are city-owned and have implemented a new procedure. “We now got the technology solution to make sure it is not going to happen again,” said Gaudet.
Gaudet says all supervisors will be trained on the new technology to keep this from happening in the future. As for the Vanners, Gaudet says right now, they have no legal mechanisms of recouping that money from the property owners and their investigation of how the city ever started cutting the private lots is still ongoing.