Wednesday, April 13, 2011

BP Oil Spill Payouts Boon To Gulf Coast

Money set aside by BP oil to help those affected by the oil spill along the Gulf Coast resulted on an economic boon for some people and some governments.

‘Spillionaires’ are the new rich after BP oil spill payouts

Some Fishermen Got Cleanup Jobs Plus Actual Losses

‘Spillionaires’ are the new rich after BP oil spill payouts

By Kim Barker

The Washington Post

The oil spill that was once expected to bring economic ruin to the Gulf Coast appears to have delivered something entirely different: a gusher of money.

So many people cashed in that they earned nicknames: “spillionaires” or “BP rich.” Others hurt by the spill wound up getting comparatively little. In the end, BP’s attempt to make things right — spending more than $16 billion so far, mostly on damage claims and cleanup — created new divisions and even new wrongs.

Some of the inequities arose from the chaos that followed the April 20 spill. But in at least one corner of Louisiana, the dramatic differences can be traced in part to local powerbrokers.

To show how the money flowed, ProPublica interviewed people who worked on the spill and examined records for St. Bernard Parish, a coastal community about five miles southeast of downtown New Orleans.

Those documents show that companies with ties to parish insiders got lucrative contracts and then charged BP for every possible expense. The prime cleanup company submitted bills with little or no documentation. A subcontractor billed BP $15,400 per month to rent a generator that usually cost $1,500 a month. Another company charged BP more than a $1 million a month for land it had been renting for less than $1,700 a month. Assignments for individual fishermen also fell under the control of political leaders.

“This parish raped BP,” said Wayne Landry, the chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Council, referring to the conduct of its political leadership. “At the end of the day, it really just frustrates me. I’m an elected official. I have guilt by association.”

Spill Resulted In Economic Benefits

The economic benefits rippled throughout the gulf. In the six months after the spill, sales tax receipts, a key measure of economic activity, rose significantly in eight of the 24 most affected communities from Louisiana to Florida. Only one community, in Mississippi, saw its receipts dip significantly.

Sales tax collections from Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish rose more than 71 percent. And St. Bernard saw a bigger jump than anywhere. The parish collected almost $26.8 million in sales and lodging tax receipts in the six months after the spill, almost twice as much as over the same period in 2009. Flush with cash from cleanup and claims, many fishermen bought new boats and trucks. Sales at the nearest Chevrolet dealer rose 41 percent.

Just days into the crisis, St. Bernard’s parish president, Craig Taffaro Jr., invoked a Louisiana law to declare a 30-day emergency and handle the crisis without most normal government checks and balances. He chose the prime contractor that supervised the cleanup. He and people close to him decided which fishermen would be hired to put out boom and search for oil.

In some ways, parish residents seemed to view the disaster and BP’s culpability as a way to recover from earlier blows. St. Bernard bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded almost every home in August 2005. Population dropped almost in half, from about 67,000 in 2000 to about 36,000 in 2010, largely because people didn’t come back after Katrina and the hurricanes that followed. Before the spill, the parish slashed its budget by 11 percent, cutting garbage collection, the fire department and mosquito control. There was just no money.

The spill changed that. Fisherman were paid to lay out protective boom to try to corral the oil. Contractors were hired to manage the cleanup and provide security. Claims money began flowing to people who said their lives had been upended by the crisis.

Parish Government Benefited

The parish government was among the first to benefit, snagging a $1 million check for oil-spill expenses. Parish employees went shopping for cameras, printers, a file cabinet, staplers and 712 shirts emblazoned with the parish name. Taffaro and other officials said the parish shouldn’t have to spend its own resources to respond to the spill. The shirts were necessary to identify employees at the cleanup site, they said.

Some of the money also went to overtime pay for more than 40 parish employees, including three who claimed overtime for picking up dog food for the animal shelter. St. Bernard’s homeland security director, David Dysart, a salaried employee, got almost $23,000 for working 497 hours of overtime in less than seven weeks, a fact first reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Dysart did not respond to a query about his overtime.

As the money flowed, complaints spread. Subcontractors said those at the top of the cleanup creamed off money, while those at the bottom earned much less for doing the actual work.

BP provided only limited information to ProPublica. The federal government ceded control of cleanup spending to BP, and the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal agency most involved with overseeing BP’s response, said BP was spending whatever was required to clean up the spill.

Taffaro and other St. Bernard officials also refused to respond to public-records requests ProPublica began filing in November. When asked again last week why the parish hadn’t provided any records, Dysart said he would be happy to help, but that filling the request would take time and cost a lot of money.

“I’m in the process of really, truly trying to assist you,” said Dysart, who is also the parish’s interim chief administrative officer.

In response to questions submitted by ProPublica in March, Taffaro said through his spokeswoman that he can approve overtime for salaried employees in extenuating circumstances and that Dysart eventually decided to stop taking overtime. Taffaro said that paying overtime for picking up dog food was necessary because the spill had caused fishermen to abandon their dogs.

Some Fishermen Got Cleanup Jobs Plus Actual Losses

The BP cleanup claims system didn’t differentiate between fishermen who got cleanup jobs with BP and those who didn’t. The amount people received for their initial six-month emergency claims was based on the paperwork they submitted, not on their actual losses.

One man who earned $67,000 in 2009, fishing crabs and hunting a swamp rat called nutria, got $100,000 for his six-month claim. That was on top of $90,000 for working on the cleanup and $20,000 he received in initial BP claims. In the eight months after the spill, he made $210,000, more than three times his 2009 income.

But Thomas Gonzales, who said he filed $90,000 in taxable income in 2009, received only $22,000 in his six-month payment. “They’re giving the money to the young generation,” said Gonzales, who is 73. “They figure I got one foot over the hole.”

Many fishermen fretted that businesses that had been hurt by the recession, not the spill, were getting BP money: hairdressers, waiters, restaurant owners.

Felesia Carter, a manager at St. Bernard’s only off-track betting parlor, said customers were gambling away claims money. Her business was so good, she said, that employees worked overtime.

“I don’t understand how BP is just giving its money out like this,” Carter said. “Give it to the people who deserve it.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bill Requires School Districts To Consider Performance In Teacher Layoffs

Tenure isn’t always a safety net for teachers when school districts lay off workers, under legislation being considered in the Georgia House Monday.

Proposal puts performance above seniority in teacher layoffs

Performance Not Always Considered When Retaining Teachers

Proposal puts performance above seniority in teacher layoffs

Performance Not Always Considered When Retaining Teachers

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Teachers could no longer rely on seniority as a safe harbor when school districts lay off workers, under legislation before the Georgia House Monday.

Senate Bill 184 would require local school systems to use teacher performance as the primary factor when deciding layoffs. Supporters argue that policy change will give job security to the best educators and give middling teachers incentive to improve.

“If we want the best students and to improve our education system, we have got to have the best teachers,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, the measure's sponsor. “Anything else is contrary to keeping the best employees.”

Opponents Say Legislation Unnecessary

Opponents say the legislation isn't necessary because job performance has been included as a factor in decisions on layoffs for years. They worry the issue draws focus away from school funding cuts the state has made for years.

"It’s not really necessary,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “We have some legislators who feel the need to chase national stories.”

Cash-strapped school districts have been handing out pink slips by the hundreds, even thousands, for the past few years. That's led to closer scrutiny of last-hired- first-fired policies.

Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Rhode Island have recently written into law or policy that seniority will not be the primary factor in deciding who is laid off, said Emily Cohen, district policy director for the National Council on Teacher Quality.

But for the majority of school districts, seniority is the most important determinant of layoff decisions, Cohen said. The question hit Georgia last year, when as many as 9,000 of the state's 125,000 teachers were projected to lose their jobs from budget cuts.

Many of those workers kept their jobs after an influx of federal stimulus money, but by then, stories were beginning to surface that some top-notch educators were gone because they lacked tenure or seniority.

Teacher of the Year Fired

State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, a Democrat from Austell, heard about one teacher in Cobb County who lost her job despite being her school’s teacher of the year.

Federal money got her re-hired, and Cobb changed its policy to look first at performance for its teachers, she said. Still, the situation stuck with Morgan, whose husband serves on the county school board.

Morgan proposed legislation (HB 257) that would have made teacher performance – including student achievement – the main factor for layoffs in Georgia school districts. Her proposal stalled in the House Rules Committee, so she has taken up the Senate version to get a new policy in place.

“Their claim is, of course, they use performance, but what they do in practice does not match up,” Morgan said of districts where teachers let go included department heads and other outstanding educators. “The fact is, looking mainly at years of service is problematic if your goal is to do what’s in the best interest of the kids.”

Districts Say Performance Considered

Several area districts agree. The Cherokee County district, for instance, has a policy that allows for consideration of several factors beyond length of service such as critical or special skills and job performance.

In 2009 and 2010, the system didn’t fill a handful of vacancies and last year eliminated 160 paraprofessionals and 144 part-time job share teaching positions.

This year, the district did not fill seven supervisory jobs and eliminated another 85 jobs. Seven of those laid off were teachers.

Fulton County Schools, which had its first staffing reductions in three years this year, said the majority of its 900 jobs lost were vacant or being vacated from retirement and resignations.

Spokeswoman Susan Hale said the district was the first in metro Atlanta to employ a “performance criteria” when downsizing was required.

“Only after performance is seniority considered,” she said.

Performance Not Always Considered When Retaining Teachers

Salena Gray Jegede of Snellville, who worked as a teacher for three years before switching to a job training first- and second-year educators with a nonprofit, said policy isn't always reality when it comes to using performance to retain the best teachers during times of lay-offs..

State law grants tenure to teachers who have finished at least three consecutive years of full-time teaching and have an “expectation of continued employment.”

Jegede said she saw districts use that law to get rid of new teachers in a roundabout way, not renewing their contracts instead of officially counting them as laid off.

Some parents think the same, especially those who became more involved in their local schools after the economic downturn led to more layoffs.

Kerry Ridgon of Douglasville said two teachers were especially helpful with her twins, now in the fifth grade. One taught her daughter in second grade and then her son and daughter this year, each time pushing them and other students beyond their expectations.

The children ended up eager to learn more, much as they did with a new science teacher who was similarly engaging this year. Yet she said both teachers are being “re-assigned,” – possibly to new roles or possibly out the door – partially because they are among the newer educators.

“If either one of these teachers does not find a home in this district, that’s when I’ll raise my pitchfork,” said Rigdon, who works part-time in accounting. “My children have gotten the benefits of having these teachers. My friends, neighbors and community should have that same opportunity.”