Calcasieu leaders speak of challenges since hurricanes

Published 10:57 am Friday, May 13, 2022

Four Calcasieu Parish elected officials spoke of the various challenges their departments have faced since Hurricanes Laura and Delta made landfall in August and October of 2020.

The Alliance for Positive Growth held a panel discussion Thursday with Clerk of Court Lynn Jones, Sheriff Tony Mancuso, Tax Assessor Wendy Aguillard and District Attorney Stephen Dwight.

Jones said the loss of important documents after Hurricane Laura prompted the department to make significant changes, one being rebuilding information technology infrastructure. New servers were installed, along with satellite servers in Tyler, Texas.

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“Basically, it’s like an armored car inside the facility,” he said. “So we’ve got dual safety mechanisms there. It would have to be an unbelievable world-ending situation for us to lose our data,” he said.

To protect against cyber threats, the clerk’s office hired 24/7 Monitoring, a cyber security company. The office is also working with FEMA to get money for digitizing documents. He said the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury put up a 50/50 match for the effort, with a goal of digitizing everything in the office within the next five years.

“Everything that has come in the last 20 years has been digitized, but there is still a lot of important information,” he said. “We’re talking about millions and millions of documents. That’s the only way we’re going to be truly safe.”

Jones said recruiting workers at the clerk’s office, along with election commissioners, has been difficult. He said the number of commissioners has dropped from 850-900, to roughly 400 since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Augillard said 2020 was a state-mandated reassessment year. However, COVID-19 and Hurricanes Laura and Delta allowed for the use of statutes to review valuations of property and adjust them down for businesses who first lost income because of the pandemic, then the two storms.

“What we finally came to was every structure in Calcasieu Parish needed a reduction,” she said. “There might be a one-off structure that didn’t have damage and got a reduction and didn’t deserve it. But 99.9 percent of all structures in this parish had to have some sort of reduction.”

Aguillard said the reductions were done using a tiered system for properties that suffered more significant damage. Those reductions were done for 2021 and this year.

“We will still look at properties for 2022 that need reduction,” she said.

Owners with commercial properties that remain damaged or closed should call the Tax Assessor’s office at 721-3000.

Mancuso said the last two years have been the most challenging in his 38-year career in law enforcement. He said everything that could go wrong right after Hurricane Laura happened, including a double homicide, a chlorine fire at a local chemical plant, and the former Isle of Capri riverboat jammed underneath the Interstate 10/Calcasieu River bridge.

Prisoners were just moved into the repaired Calcasieu Correctional Center last week, with another facility not expected to reopen for another six months. The Sheriff’s Department is also down 140 deputies.

Mancuso mentioned the Real Time Crime Center that uses cameras and license plate readers to aid deputies and investigators in solving crimes quickly.

“It’s not Big Brother watching you,” he said. “It’s used for law enforcement purposes, and we’re the only ones who have access to it.”

Mancuso said active face-to-face police work is ongoing, but keeping up with technological improvements is key in catching criminals.

“I’ll put us up against any police agency in this country,” he said. “These deputies have at their fingertips all the information in their cars.”

Dwight said courts were closed for roughly two years once the COVID-19 pandemic began. When he first took office in January 2021, there was a huge backlog of cases, with roughly 900 per division.

“The bar association’s suggested number for a caseload per attorney is about 250-300,” he said. “We had to get innovative on what we were going to do.”

Dwight said judges provided additional trial dates that his office has used regularly.

“We’re trying more cases than any other office in the state, and we’re getting good results,” he said. “Now, everyone knows if we give you an offer and you don’t take it, we’re going to go to court and we’re going to find you guilty.”

This approach has dropped the caseload per division to roughly 400-500, Dwight said.

His office is prioritizing cases, specifically murders, over other crimes.

“I could try just murder cases for the next five years and not touch a drug or burglary case,” he said. “We are trying the worst of the worst (and) we’re not giving them any leeway.”

Dwight said his office is still getting an overwhelming number of calls from residents reporting contractor fraud. Calls have come in waves, starting with tree removal, then roofers and workers installing new fences. Calls are on the rise now that more residents are receiving settlement money from litigation filed against insurance companies.

“People are hiring contractors to do repairs, and it’s spotty work,” he said.