Editor’s note: To read Paul Savoie’s notes about the time he spent as mayor of Lake Charles (1981-85) isn’t just to discover a treasure trove of fascinating facts from the history and politics of the past. It’s also to encounter a fascinating primer about just how it is one goes about managing a municipal government.
During his time as mayor, Savoie encountered challenges of local government that most of us could never conceive of. They’re just the sort of aggravating, lackluster, workaday problems that government exists to fix.
In his reminiscences, Savoie also provides insights into his involvement with Mardi Gras – and remembers the Mardi Gras work he did during his time as mayor: the time when citizens and city government combined their forces to create a new form of Mardi Gras.
The Calcasieu Public Trust
When I left Boys’ Village after high school, I stayed in the area. While I was attending McNeese, I entered the business world. I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life, and the Lake Charles community has been very good to me.
I’m now retired. My wife Bobbie and I have three sons and six grandsons and three great-grandchildren.
I had the opportunity to participate in community service through the years. Early on, I was able to serve as the first chairman of the Calcasieu Public Trust.
This was a period of terrible economic times, and President Carter couldn’t get any help from the private corporation known as the Federal Reserve. Interest rates to buy a home were 18-20 percent. (Today, President Obama has the assistance of the Federal Reserve, which is selling $75 billion of bonds every month and greatly enhancing the home market with low interest rates even in the slow economy.)
Our local housing market at the time was dying. However, our Police Jury accepted the concept of using real estate mortgages as security to sell bonds which wouldn’t have a negative impact on the citizens of Calcasieu Parish.
The mortgages would pay off the bonds. The Police Jury formed the Calcasieu Parish Public Trust to oversee this venture. The concept would allow decreased interest rates for our homebuyers.
But we had a problem in Calcasieu Parish. We were opposed by some area banks and community leaders. A petition was circulated by those opposed to a vote of the people.
In the end, though, we won at the ballot box with a wide margin. I might add that this was the only place in the United States that required a vote of the people on a government action of this type.
The trust issued $50 million in bonds. Lenders placed all the available funds in real estate loans to home buyers.
A New Approach
Lake Charles doesn’t have a city manager. The mayor is responsible for the operation of the city and enforcement of all ordinances passed by the city council.
I served as mayor of Lake Charles from 1981-85. My motivation for running for mayor was to completely change the land use ordinance of the city and also, I hoped, realize a long list of additional accomplishments.
I knew that in order to succeed, I would need a management system; thus, I implemented the “matrix system” of management. The object was to keep a finger on the pulse of city government at all times so that I could respond to problems quickly.
The first problem that arose was drainage. Four engineering firms volunteered their expertise to set priorities for addressing the problems.
We started with the Oak Park area and an area in South Lake Charles. We diverted water with a huge underground pipe from 5th Ave. directly to the Kayouchee Coulee. We also secured funding from the state for paving the Oak Park lateral. Amoco donated property with which we straightened the horseshoe lateral east of Greenwich Terrace.
We greatly improved the drainage in several areas.
We started the All Ears program, which was operated by senior citizen volunteers on the ground floor of City Hall. Citizens could call City Hall and share complaints or suggestions. Their comments were forwarded to the proper city department for action.
The daily log was delivered to my office so I could stay on top of every call. The program was a great success in identifying the concerns of our city.
‘This Was Government For The People’
When I took office, the city had no insurance department. Yet insurance was a major expense for the city. So, I created an insurance director position and started the City Insurance Office.
We instituted a bidding process for our insurance; previously there was no such bidding for insurance by the City of Lake Charles. This effort brought real savings to our city. This was government for the people.
Our police and fire departments had their own pension and retirement funds; these were both basically broke. We hired an actuary firm to look at the funds. Realizing that we had a desperate situation, we decided to merge both systems with the state retirement program.
This cost millions of dollars over the years, but it was the right thing to do for the people we counted on the protect our city. Today, retirement benefits are a major recruiting tool for firemen and police.
We had concerns about the city crime rate. We instituted the assignment of “take home” units for our officers to achieve more visibility. We also created a motorcycle traffic division and doubled the numbers of units on patrol.
Police Chief Sam Ivey instituted several other programs that were instrumental is reducing our crime rate throughout the rest of my term. We started the narcotics division and a DWI task force. The city was honored for being the only major city in the state to reduce alcohol-related accidents.
Insurance companies rate the cost of insurance of real estate based on the fire rating of the city. The private group ISO evaluates cities every 10 years. When I was informed of the coming evaluation at the start of my term, the late Fire Chief Algie Breaux, the fire department personnel and I went to work on improving our Class 3 rating. Breaux and I shared a friendship from our days in the Naval Reserve.
We were all excited when Lake Charles became a Class 2 city. Every property owner (residential and commercial) experienced a drop in their insurance cost. To this day, I’m still very proud of this accomplishment.
We estimated the city-wide annual savings was $1 million dollars. The effort took nearly two years.
The ‘Green Can’
The automated garbage system was another of our accomplishments that’s still being enjoyed today. Prior to the “green can,” every home owner used a different container. Some were left by the street; some were full of water; some went rolling down the street; and all were unsightly.
I formed the Clean City Board with volunteers. This dedicated group of local citizens was the beginning of a valuable concept (with a different name) that still exists. Every homeowner eventually received a “green can”; now most cities and parishes use the “big can.” We were the first in Louisiana.
We were very fortunate to have Ron Rider as our public works director. Rider was very active; he helped the city earn the Keep America Beautiful certification.
We finished hard-surfacing all streets in the city during my term … bye-bye street grader.
We started the Adopt a Park project in an effort to improve and expand facilities with the help of civic and interest groups. One civic group purchased new playground equipment for Lock Park. I dedicated Tuten Park on Nelson Road as a recreational park housed on property donated by the Tuten family.
Every city park received my attention. I’ll never forget the clearing and leveling of the park at the end of Alma Lane. Bobby Ryder coordinated a group of volunteers from the Operating Engineers 406 and used equipment (trackhoe, dozer) furnished by local vendors to completely land-level the area.
The park was being designed to serve the more than 400 children (and 60 volunteer coaches) in the Dixie League program. The work was done free of charge. I can’t forget to mention White Construction, which donated time and equipment to add three soccer fields in the park for our youth.
No New Taxes
We used no new taxes for these park initiatives. I basically feel that people pay enough taxes, so I never pursued new taxes. The volunteer efforts greatly enhanced our ability to maintain and expand our parks. We added the Gieffers Street Park, which was very appreciated by the community. Our parks truly serve our community.
Every year, the State Legislature meets and passes new laws. I hired an inter-governmental liaison to track all legislation in Baton Rouge and Washington that would affect our city, just as I’d planned as part of our Matrix Management System.
The year I took office, the city received an invoice from the state because of a law that had passed during the previous session that we knew nothing about that referenced some city employees. The liaison would solve future problems of this type as they arose.
‘We Spoke As One’
I spearheaded a move to form the Southwest Louisiana Mayors’ Assoc., which involved all mayors from Calcasieu Parish and other area parishes. When we spoke about issues affecting our cities, we spoke as one. Our liaison kept everyone informed on bills filed in Baton Rouge. This was a win-win situation for all mayors.
One of the problems in most cities was addressing the needs of the handicapped citizens. I formed the Mayor’s Commission for the Handicapped; developed a plan with input from local concerned citizens; and went to work removing barriers. I was very surprised when I received a call from President Ronald Reagan’s office advising me that we were chosen as the Nation’s Model City in meeting the needs of the handicapped. The Reagan administration requested our presence in Washington to receive the award.
Attacked By Dogs
When I ran for mayor in 1981, I was attacked twice by dogs on the street. I was determined that if I were elected mayor, I would create a true animal control system.
I hired Laura Lanza, founder of Animal Concern, to become Director of the Animal Control Dept. Lanza was very active in animal welfare concerns. By working together, we formed a concept that became a model program.
I’m very proud of the present-day animal control system that was started during my term and is now parish-wide.
At one point in my term, I was awakened in the middle of the night and advised that we had an emergency problem on the tracks in north Lake Charles. A rail car was leaking a hazardous product.
It was a major concern for our police officers, who were obliged to wake people up in the middle of night using loudspeakers and knocking on doors.
I decided to solve the problem with a city-wide siren alert and audio system. We could speak to any area of the city or the whole city at the same time in the case of an emergency.
A few years after I left office, I was driving on Lake Street near the Drew Station Post Office when I noticed police units using loudspeakers to advise homeowners of a dangerous cloud of chemicals that had been released by one of plants. Police urged citizens to stay indoors and turn off the air units.
I stopped and inquired as to why they weren’t using the audio system and was told it didn’t work. I made a few calls asking why the system wasn’t kept in working order.
Today, you hear the system being checked every Monday at noon. We were one of the first cities to install this type of audio alert system.
Innovative Land Use
As I mentioned above, I was strongly motivated to run for mayor because of the land use in the city; I also felt the need for more annexation and planning. I appointed Ernie Broussard as planning director. We began by studying our land use.
We hired a consultant to work with us in designing a concept that was fair to the citizens and would foster growth. Two years later, the City Council passed the new ordinance.
According to its terms, if a developer built a structure, they had to address several issues, including drainage. Look at the Wal-Mart store on Nelson Road and notice how the store addressed drainage.
No longer would an operation push its water on to neighbors. Projects were based on their merits and not politics. The city solicited input from every area of business and every type of citizen; we consulted sign companies, builders, architects, the Preservation Society and many others.
I realize no land use endeavor is perfect and each one needs constant review by city officials. However, the city made great strides. We obtained a Historical District designation that serves us well today. I give special thanks to all the dedicated people who were involved with the Preservation Society.
I’ve been asked whether I have regrets about my time as mayor. One that stands out was the introduction of fluoride into the city water by the City Council. I vetoed the item, but the council overrode my veto.
I had major concerns and tried to study the fluoride issue. I could never satisfy myself that the City Council had the right to require compulsory medication. I’ve read that fluoride can accumulate in bones, cause child brain development problems and create thyroid and kidney problems in older citizens.
Let’s consider that during my term in office, we had a handful of kidney machines in the city, and they were mainly in the hospitals. Now, we have complete clinics full of kidney machines. Is it fluoride or is it something else? Why not use toothpaste or apply fluoride topically without ingesting it? The citizens should have decided the issue — not public officials.
One area that was a real problem for our citizens was the Shattuck Street railroad crossing, which is now the Kevin Wayne Yokum overpass. Trains hindered traffic for extended periods, affecting both everyday drivers and emergency vehicles.
We realized we had to address the problem. The Southern Railroad and a federal agency provided most of the funds to construct the Shattuck Street overpass that our citizens now enjoy.
‘The Right Place At The Right Moment’
In my last year in office, 1985, Lake Charles won honors from the United States Conference of Mayors at its annual meeting in Alaska when it received the Achievement Award, for which it had competed with all mayors in the U.S. We also received the Achievement Award from the Louisiana Municipal Assoc. in a competition with mayors of larger cities in our state.
Our national and local economy was hurting during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We lost thousands of jobs in Calcasieu Parish.
When I left the office of mayor, Lake Charles had the lowest per capita debt of any large city in the state, and we did it without raising taxes. Sometimes God puts you in the perfect place at the right moment.
I became deeply involved in Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras during my time in office.
Today, the Lake Charles area has the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the state.
They not only represent fun and family, but also give back to the community. The festival is a huge event.
My role as mayor was to work with the Krewe of Krewes to form a legal entity — a corporation — to bring the Krewes into a dedicated circle of responsibility with the city. The leaders of the group saw the need for the endeavor.
The city has a major role in the activities of the festival in view of the fact that most of the events involve public property.
I worked with several people at this time. It was citizens such Anne Monlezun who contributed so much to form the organization that is now enjoying its 35th year. [The group was first known as Mardi Gras of Imperial Calcasieu; today it is known as Mardi Gras Southwest Louisiana.]
Mardi Gras is a fun and family-oriented festival. My family and I were very appreciative to be honored this year during the Twelfth Night celebration, which took place on my birthday — Jan. 6. I had the good fortune to be appointed Grand Duke of Misrule by the Krewe of Krewes in honor of my role as mayor in the legal formation of the organization.
I know I speak for the community in thanking the Krewe of Krewes for their continued efforts in bringing us such a grand festival.
‘He Could See The Future Of Lake Charles’
Anne Monlezun Recalls When She Asked Mayor Savoie To Provide A Mardi Gras Boost
Perennial Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras leader Anne Monlezun still has vivid memories of the time when she turned to Lake Charles Mayor Paul Savoie in an effort to get the City of Lake Charles to provide official support for the festivities in the 1980s.
At the time, Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras was having growing pains. Big ones. Some sort of city support and cooperation seemed like a good potential solution to the problem.
Mardi Gras “grew so big it was too overwhelming for all the krewe captains,” says Monlezun. The captains were obliged to handle programs, lights, costumes, food booths and other Mardi Gras requisites.
“All of it hit at the same time,” says Monlezun. “It was all in five days. It was too much … It was killing” captains, who were the “people who had to do the work.”
Monlezun felt it was best to try to bring the City of Lake Charles into Mardi Gras. “I went to the mayor and asked if he could help us put together an umbrella organization” for Mardi Gras. “I said, ‘Would the city back us?’”
The answer was certainly a positive one. Savoie was “very much for Mardi Gras. He was so kind and so supportive and for Lake Charles and could see the future of Lake Charles.
“He personally asked some of these people to be on the board [of the newly formed Mardi Gras of Imperial Calcasieu, which would later become Mardi Gras Southwest Louisiana].
“That helped tremendously … It took the mayor to give the push. People will do things for the mayor.”
As for his very recent role as the Grand Duke of Misrule for Twelfth Night, Monlezun says of Savoie, “Every year, we honor someone who has contributed to the progress of Mardi Gras.” Savoie certainly fits the bill.