Timeout Lounge, apartment building destroyed in early morning fire
An early morning fire has completely destroyed the Timeout Lounge, located in a strip center at 9374 Old Hammond Highway, as well as at least one apartment building located behind the bar, says Baton Rouge Fire Department Public Information Officer Robert Combs. “There are reported injuries, but I cannot confirm the extent of them at this time,” Combs says. Both BRFD and St. George Fire Protection District firefighters responded to the blaze this morning, which was reported by a passerby around 5:30 a.m. Combs says the blaze was still not under control as of 9:30. Combs did not know as of this morning how many apartments were destroyed in the fire. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, he says. The other businesses located in the strip center, which include The Jambalaya Shoppe, were not damaged by the fire, Combs says, “but there’s probably a lot of smoke and water damage.” WAFB is reporting that one firefighter was taken to the hospital with burns to the back of his neck, while a woman living in the nearby apartment complex was treated for smoke inhalation. The injuries are reportedly not considered life-threatening. —Steve Sanoski
Bernhard Mechanical still seeking $700K from Spinosa over Perkins Rowe
It has been more than four years since a district court in East Feliciana Parish awarded Bernhard Mechanical a nearly $2 million judgment against Perkins Rowe and developer Tommy Spinosa for unpaid work the company did on the heating and air conditioning systems at the mixed-use development. But even though the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment earlier this year, Bernhard Mechanical claims it is still out some $700,000—money it is owed by Spinosa personally, says attorney Craig Kaster, who explains that Perkins Rowe's bonding company has paid the rest of the judgment. In an attempt to recover the rest, Kaster filed a petition in August to try to get the money from Central Facilities Operating Company, which supplies chilled water for the air conditioner at Perkins Rowe. However, the attorney says he was notified earlier this week that Spinosa has not owned Central Facilities since 2008, when he transferred it to the Spinosa Class Trust. “The problem in trying to get my client paid is trying to find where the money is,” says Kaster. “All the companies he supposedly owns he doesn't seem to own anymore … Everything he owns is in a trust.” A written statement from JTS, Spinosa's real estate company, disputes the amount Bernhard Mechanical is owed and says the judgment has been satisfied by the bonding company. “We are unclear as to what Bernhard Mechanical is trying to accomplish by their recent filings,” the statement reads. —Stephanie Riegel Read the full story.
LaPolitics: Vitter opens door to governor's race
In an email sent to supporters this week, Sen. David Vitter declared his intentions to either get in the 2015 governor's race by the end of January or focus on the job he already has, which was seen by politicos as an early move to shake off potential Republican rivals. “He's just trying to clear the field,” says one operative. “Vitter's going to play this one rough and tough.” But the junior senator disagrees. In an interview with LaPolitics, Vitter says there were no ulterior motives to his statement. “I wanted my friends and supporters to know we are now seriously considering the race,” he said. LaPolitics has a closer look at the latest poll on the developing race for governor, including who managed to capture the lead over Vitter in the local congressional district.
—While there are a variety of issues that might be discussed in regard to TOPS during the 2014 regular session, there's at least one idea for a small expansion of the popular scholarship program that could be debated again. State Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, says he plans to reintroduce legislation to tap into TOPS to help students who received their undergraduate degrees outside of Louisiana to return to the state for their graduate degrees. A similar proposal from Greene was stalled earlier this year alongside several other bills that would have created new layers of eligibility. But Greene, since he first introduced the idea, has slowly been narrowing its scope down to high demand degrees, like those in health services. The overall concept, however, is still being worked out. LaPolitics has more from House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, who is leaving options open for possible changes to TOPS next year.
Political takeaways: Columnist Alan Ehrenhalt of Governing magazine has dubbed Louisiana the “tax amnesty capital of the United States.” In the years since 1985, he noted, the Bayou State has offered some form of amnesty six separate times. The most recent program was capped off in November. "But it's really only a question of degree," Ehrenhalt added. LaPolitics elaborates briefly on his musings and explores the other major headlines from the past week.
They said it: "I'm not sweating this year." —Chief legislative economist Greg Albrecht, on the state's current financial trajectory
(John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford publish LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow them on Twitter or on Facebook.).
Shell announcement marks a second industrial setback in past month
The announcement by Shell on Thursday that it's nixing its plans for a massive gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in the Capital Region—a project initially valued at $12.5 billion, with company officials later saying the investment could reach as high as $20 billion—came just days after Dow Chemical announced that six of 19 units at its Plaquemine facility are among 40 facilities in its global portfolio that it's looking to sell or spin off. Dow made clear that in the event of a sale or spinoff, it is entirely possible that no net jobs would be lost, and that output at the plants would continue. Monday's announcement by Dow came just a month after Mosaic Co. announced it was abandoning plans to build a $700 million ammonia plant in St. James Parish. Instead of building the plant and manufacturing the ammonia, Mosaic says it will be buying it from Deerfield, Ill.-based CF Industries under a 15-year contract that takes effect no later than 2017. As Louisiana Chemical Association President Dan BornÚ told Daily Report on Thursday, these kinds of decisions happen all the time in the petrochemical industry. “I think there are going to be several twists and turns over the next year or two when it comes to what is going to be invested,” said BornÚ, who added Shell may not be the only company to have a change of heart about a much-heralded expansion or new construction. “You have market conditions, business supply chain issues, capital allocation issues.” BornÚ has previously told Daily Report that of the $70 billion or so in projects announced in Louisiana in recent years, at least $40 billion almost certainly will be built, while $30 billion might not for economic reasons. Regarding the Plaquemine plants and others, Dow officials say they expect any sales or spin-offs to happen within the next one to two years. —Staff report
Editor's note: This story has been changed since its original publication. The story has been updated to clarify that Dow intends to sell or spin off several units at its Plaquemine facility. A new buyer might presumably continue operations with no net impact on jobs or output.
'225 Dine': DHH talks improvements of Eat Safe program
Nearly one year after a state audit slammed the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals' restaurant inspection process, DHH Assistant Secretary for Public Health J.T. Lane tells 225 Dine that improvements have been made to provide a better workplace environment and technology for inspectors. Now, inspections are taking place in "real time," Lane says, thanks to the improvements. "We're making sure every establishment is in accordance with our policy, and nothing is falling behind," he says. "This is a positive project to change something that means so much to people who go out to eat. Over 20 million come to visit us for our food—that's a huge statement. We need to get things right." But even Lane acknowledges some consumers may still have trouble understanding restaurant inspection reports that are publicly available via the department's Eat Safe website. Some of the changes include making the process easier to report between head and regional inspectors. A simple establishment inspection schedule tool was built and put into place for each region. The way employees were evaluated was also retooled.For establishments that were repeat offenders, compliance orders were also overhauled, and that process now goes through the central DHH office in Baton Rouge. To date, around 18 compliance orders have been filed and around $14,000 in fines has been collected. An increase in inspection fees was also levied—from $100 to $150. Access the full story and get your fill of more local culinary news in the new 225 Dine e-newsletter.
U.S. unemployment falls to 7% in November on addition of 203K jobs
A fourth straight month of solid hiring cut the U.S. unemployment rate in November to a five-year low of 7%. The surprisingly robust job gain suggested that the economy may have begun to accelerate, The Associated Press reports, and it also fueled speculation that the Federal Reserve will scale back its economic stimulus when it meets later this month. Employers added 203,000 jobs last month after adding 200,000 in October, according to the Labor Department figures out this morning. November's job gain helped lower the unemployment rate from 7.3% in October. The U.S. economy has now generated a four-month average of 204,000 jobs from August through November. That's up from 159,000 a month from April through July. An especially encouraging sign was that much of November's job growth was in higher-paying industries. Manufacturers added 27,000 jobs, the most since March 2012. Construction companies added 17,000. The two industries have created a combined 113,000 jobs in the past four months. The Fed has pegged its stimulus efforts to the unemployment rate. Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the Fed will ease its monthly purchases of $85 billion in bonds once hiring has improved consistently. Read the full story.
News roundup: Lawmakers rushing to reach budget agreement … Internet firms step up efforts to stop spying … Obama's fixer-upper website races to catch up
Deadlines and commitments: With the holiday recess fast approaching, congressional negotiators are closing in on an agreement to avoid another government shutdown. But The Washington Post reports they face a last-minute outcry from House Democrats demanding to extend federal jobless benefits as part of any deal. “We are making a very clear statement that we cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance in the budget or as a sidebar in order to move it all along,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday after holding a hearing on the jobless program, which is set to lapse at the end of December, cutting off checks to 1.3 million people. Read the full story.
The best offense is a good defense: When Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's chief executive, recently announced the company's biggest security overhaul in more than a decade, The New York Times reports, she did not exactly receive a standing ovation. Ordinary users asked Mayer why Yahoo was not doing more. Privacy activists were more blunt. “Even after today's announcement, Yahoo still lags far behind Google on web security,” said Christopher Soghoian, a technology analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. For big Internet outfits, it is no longer enough to have a fast-loading smartphone app or cool messaging service. In the era of Edward J. Snowden and his revelations of mass government surveillance, companies are competing to show users how well their data is protected from prying eyes, with billions of dollars in revenue hanging in the balance. Read the full story.
Work in progress: President Barack Obama's health insurance website is finally starting to put up some respectable sign-up numbers, but its job only seems to have gotten harder. Two months in and out of the repair shop have left significantly less time to fulfill the White House goal of enrolling 7 million people by the end of open enrollment on March 31. Signups were just over 100,000 nationally as of the end of October. The 36 states served by the federal government's website accounted for a paltry one-fourth of that, fewer than 27,000 people. But officials now say an additional 29,000 people enrolled through the revamped HealthCare.gov in just two days at the start of this week, despite heavy volume that not long ago would have caused the system to lock up. The Associated Press has the full story.