BATON ROUGE, LA (AP) A state senator wants Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom to be forced to follow the state’s public bid law for construction projects –– saying Odom should have to prove that his practice of using his department’s employees on such work is cheaper than a general contractor.
For the past two decades, the agriculture department under Odom often has done construction work in house, using department employees who don’t necessarily have construction backgrounds, including white-collar workers, specialists in agricultural fields and the state veterinarian.
The largest such project is a $45 million sugar mill being built in southwest Louisiana, and that is the construction site that spurred legislation by Sen. James David Cain, R-Dry Creek.
Cain filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would require the Louisiana Agricultural Finance Authority (LAFA) –– the financing arm for the department –– to comply with the public bid law.
LAFA, which borrows to pay for agriculture projects on behalf of the department, and 20 other state agencies currently aren’t subject to the bid law, according to Cain.
The public bid law requires agencies to seek bids from private companies on construction projects and certain other purchases. The company that offers the lowest acceptable bid for the work gets the contract.
The Lacassine sugar syrup mill is being financed through LAFA with state taxes from slot machines at horse racetracks.
Odom said he is saving money by using employees from his department rather than handing the whole project over to a general contractor with its own team of workers.
“I’ve complied with the law, and I’m doing what’s cheaper for the state, and that’s the bottom line,” he said.
But critics have questioned whether the practice really saves the state money by diverting people from their regular jobs and have worried the state might face huge liability costs if employees are injured on the job.
The Office of Risk Management, which oversees the state’s insurance program and workers’ compensation claims, said at least 17 agriculture department employees have filed claims involving injuries they received at the Lacassine sugar mill site since July.
Risk management said those claims have cost the department more than $100,000. Odom said only $34,000 has been spent on claims related to the Lacassine mill, and agriculture officials said many of the claims involved minor injuries like a stiff back and sore shoulder.
“The only way that we will ever find out if the Department of Agriculture is truly saving the state money is to put those construction projects under the public bid law,” Cain, who has considered running for agriculture commissioner, said in a news release. “If the department can show that they can do it more cheaply than private contractors, then that is great.”
The Louisiana Association of General Contractors has sued Odom over his construction practices, but the courts so far have said the laws creating LAFA allow the practices.
State safety inspectors who visited the Lacassine site recommended the agriculture department use outside contract workers.
Odom said his workers are being trained for the construction jobs they are doing and his department is following safety procedures. He denied that the construction work opened the state to greater liability risk and said contractors are doing parts of the work on the sugar mill.
The mill –– along with a bigger, $85-million sugar mill proposed in Bunkie in central Louisiana –– has been touted by Odom as a way to keep sugar cane farmers in business by cutting down the high fuel costs associated with trucking the heavy cane stalks long distances to existing mills. The Lacassine mill will process those stalks into syrup, which will be sent to other mills for further processing.
Odom said a cooperative of sugar cane farmers will buy the mills from the state with the money generated by the mill, but questions were raised about whether the mills would be profitable. An independent consulting firm is doing a feasibility study of the Bunkie project before the State Bond Commission votes on whether to back its financing.