The Livingston Parish Council voted unanimously Thursday to scale back the proposed parish health unit tax voters will see on the May ballot to 2.5 mills.

The council also voted 5-4 to settle its legal disputes with engineering firm Alvin Fairburn & Associates over the road engineering contract, cleanup after Hurricane Gustav and the firm’s defamation suit against two council members. Details of the settlement were not disclosed Thursday night.

Parish voters rejected a renewal of the health unit’s 10-year, 5-mill property tax in November, with 57 percent voting against.

Parish officials have debated for weeks whether to put the millage back on the ballot as a renewal, despite the health unit’s growing surplus, or reduce the tax to match the facility’s funding needs.

The 5-mill tax would have generated about $2.3 million per year, according to the parish Assessor’s Office, while the health unit’s annual budget is $1.1 million.

Councilman Ricky Goff pushed for a 2-mill tax proposal, calling it “ridiculous,” “irresponsible” and “stupid” to seek renewal of a tax rate that would add an estimated $12 million to the health unit’s existing $6.6 million surplus over the next decade.

Goff said talk of possible future health crises or disasters as a reason for maintaining such a surplus was little more than “a scare tactic.” If a disaster struck the parish, the federal government surely would step in, he said.

“You mean like with Hurricane Katrina?” Chairman Chance Parent asked.

Parent advocated keeping the tax at 5 mills because balloting the proposal as anything other than a “renewal” could cause voters to reject it.

Health unit employee Dawn Carter agreed. Carter said people will look for the word “renewal” and, not seeing it, think it’s a new tax.

Councilman Marshall Harris said parish officials could use health unit funds to inform voters about the purpose of the tax, as long as they do not tell people how to vote.

Several council members expressed concern about dropping the tax to 2 mills because it would require digging into the surplus by about $180,000 each year.

“We’re trying to give taxpayers a break, but we still want to keep the health unit solvent,” Harris said.

Councilwoman Sonya Collins expressed concerns about inflation, a possible need for another health unit on the west end of the parish and other reasons costs might rise. She suggested getting input from the parish finance director before setting an exact millage rate.

Harris made the motion for 2.5 mills, which Goff seconded, and all voted “yes.”

The council will vote Feb. 12 on the exact language to be placed on the May 2 ballot.

In the Fairburn matter, Goff pushed for the council to disclose the details of the settlement. But just before attorney Richard Zimmerman began to outline the terms, Collins called the matter to a vote.

Collins said after the meeting that the deal needs to be reduced to writing before it is disclosed.

Goff and Councilman Jim Norred voted against the settlement. Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz abstained.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.