The root of many of the most pressing issues in Ascension Parish can be traced back to continued population growth over the past 25 years.
Suburban sprawl from Baton Rouge, relocations after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, more recently, the natural-gas-fueled expansion of the parish’s petrochemical industry all helped Ascension become Louisiana’s fastest-growing parish between 2000 and 2010, and the third-fastest growing since then with 117,029 residents in 2014 and counting, census data show.
But since 1994, when voters approved a half-cent sales tax for roads and firefighters, Ascension residents have refused to pass any new parishwide taxes.
Five incumbents — Travis Turner, District 3; Dempsey Lambert, District 5; Randy Clouatre, District 6; Todd Lambert, District 9; and Benny Johnson, District 11 — were re-elected to their Parish Council seats without opposition.
Voters go to the polls Oct. 24 to elect a new parish president, fill six contested seats on the Parish Council and vote for assessor.
Current leaders are exploring ways to provide a parishwide sewer system, possibly using a public-private partnership to get it done. Another idea from the past — impact fees — is being floated again to cope with growth, most likely for road construction.
Last week, The Advocate talked to candidates running for Districts 1, 2 and 4 on these key issues. Now, The Advocate talks to candidates in races for Districts 7, 8 and 10.
- (Prairieville, Oak Grove)
Two-term District 7 Councilman Chris Loar’s run for parish president attracted five Republican hopefuls from Prairieville to the race: two retired businessmen, two current businessmen and a lawyer.
Four of the five candidates, Tony Christy, Mac “Rooster Lips” Edmonston, Ken Firmin and Doug Hillensbeck, voiced strong opposition to new taxes that left them little room to seek a new tax in the future. The fifth candidate is Aaron Lawler.
Several pointed to the parish’s strong revenues, in part boosted by petrochemical expansions, as supplying enough money to deal with growth, along with some belt-tightening and possible tax rededications to free up revenue for infrastructure.
Firmin, a part-time Realtor and former owner of Acadiana Waste Disposal Service, said sales and property taxes are at all-time highs, providing revenue at a good level and creating a $150 million surplus in parish government. Much of that surplus is dedicated to specific uses, however.
“I’m not in favor of any new tax increases right now. I’m a fiscal conservative. It would have to be a dire need before I would even consider it,” Firmin said.
Hillensbeck, a former three-term School Board member and a one-term Parish Council member unseated by Loar in 2007, said he won’t even vote to roll forward millage rates each year, which state law allows, and would seek a hiring freeze in parish government, allowing the number of parish workers to drop through attrition.
“We don’t have a revenue problem. What we have is a spending problem,” he said.
Christy, Edmonston and Hillensbeck showed interest in possibly rededicating some existing parish government property taxes for infrastructure.
“For now, I think we’ve got enough taxes coming in. If we spent it right and structured it right, I think we’ve got enough money coming for that (roads and other infrastructure),” said Edmonston, who owns a sewer vacuum truck business but started out in trucking years ago and got the CB handle “Rooster Lips.”
Hillensbeck suggested rededicating part of the 5-mill drainage tax. Christy said he believes many voters don’t realize how the parish divides up its revenue.
“I think the citizens of Ascension Parish, once they get a real view or real understanding on that money, I think they will possibly vote to move some money to some of our roads and infrastructure,” Christy said.
Lawler emphasized the need to create greater efficiency in parish government, to regain the trust of voters and push for more commercial developments like Livingston Parish’s Juban Crossing to spur more sales tax growth. He said residents need to see where their tax dollars are going and that they are being spent well.
But Lawler, who was an advocate for a failed recreation tax last year, said he is interested in creating a new park for Prairieville, possibly with donated land. Lawler said he wants to see if the money is available to create the park with existing revenue but left open the possibility of a new special taxing district in Prairieville to pay for the park if he can’t find the revenue.
On impact fees, Lawler, Christy and Hillensbeck said they supported the idea and felt new development should help pay for its impact on residents already in Ascension. Lawler and Hillensbeck added that they wanted to see a building moratorium while the fees are implemented and parish development rules are updated.
Hillensbeck was one of the seven council members who voted for impact fees in 2006 and remains disappointed the measure did not pass then.
“We lost out on millions,” he said.
While Edmonston said he too believes in the idea that new development should pay for its impacts, he said he wants to learn more but remains open to the idea. Firmin, on the other hand, had the softest support for impact fees among the five candidates, calling himself “borderline.”
“We need to look at it. I’m now about 55 (percent) for and 45 (percent) against impact fees right now,” he said. Firmin said that he wants to take a close look at how the fees will be spent to ensure the money is used to address impacts from that development and not unrelated problems elsewhere in the parish.
Considered at least two times before but never adopted, a public-private partnership for regional sewage treatment is getting another look from current Ascension Parish officials. The private partner would bear most of the hundreds of millions in expected upfront infrastructure cost. Proposals for the concept are expected back shortly after the election. The partner is expected to make that investment back with decades of user and hookup fees.
Christy, Edmonston, Firmin and Lawler all expressed interest in a public-private partnership and, like Hillensbeck, said they recognized the long-standing need to improve the parish’s sewer services. But uncertainty about what the private partner would seek in user and other fees left them unwilling to give a full endorsement of the idea without seeing specifics first.
“If it works for the good of the people, then I’m for it — and if (the fees) can be affordable — that’s the whole thing,” Edmonston said.
Hillensbeck declined to provide an opinion on a public private-partnership until he could gather more facts.
- (Dutchtown area)
Both incumbent Teri Casso, seeking her second term on the council, and challenger Sean Dardeau are against new taxes and in favor of exploring new ways of supporting parish growth, such as impact fees for infrastructure and a public-private partnership to bring a public sewer system to Ascension.
Dardeau and Casso are vying to represent District 8, one of fast-growing Ascension’s fastest-growing areas.
Casso, who chairs the council’s Finance Committee, appointed an impact fee exploratory panel and said she’s “waiting for results of that to come back.”
“I think the parish is efficient with its funds. It’s built a healthy reserve and our bond rating recently went from AA- to AA, but a lot of the funds are dedicated funds that can’t be used” for other purposes, such as transportation needs, she said.
An impact fee would be a source of funding for that work, Casso said.
“I think builders and developers need to participate in helping with the infrastructure problems we’re having right now,” Dardeau said.
“Obviously, we cannot continue to build new houses and have no answer to increased traffic congestion,” he said.
An impact fee would need to be set at standard rates and fund infrastructure in the area where it’s collected, Dardeau said.
On the question of a public-private partnership for a parishwide sewer system, Dardeau said he’s “absolutely” for it.
“I think that’s something we have to do,” he said, citing estimated figures as high as $700 million to $800 million for the parish to build such a system on its own.
A private company, in partnership with the parish, could fund as much as 60 percent of the cost, Dardeau said. The cost to residents, in the form of monthly fees and hookup fees, would have to be carefully considered, especially as it might affect those on a limited income, such as the elderly.
“My philosophy is, if it helps nine out of 10 people and it doesn’t hurt the one person, then you do it. But if it hurts that one, you reconsider it,” Dardeau said.
Casso said she has strongly advocated for a public-private partnership for a sewer system, at one point inviting an engineering firm to present information to the council about such a partnership.
“The utilities committee ultimately decided to take an in-house appraisal and have worked on that for the last three years,” Casso said. “But this year, they have come to the same conclusion” as herself and others, she said.
“A public-private partnership is the only way.
“We cannot realistically borrow $300 million to $500 million for infrastructure,” Casso said.
She is concerned about what residents might be asked to pay for hookups and monthly fees, but the “ultimate question is ‘Do we want sewer or do we not?’ ”
“I believe we need to do sewer and we need to do it soon,” Casso said.
“Thirty years is not acceptable to me,” she said of the estimated length of time it would take for the parish to put in a system.
- (Gonzales and St. Amant areas)
John Cagnolatti, a former Gonzales city councilman, is challenging incumbent Bryan Melancon for the District 8 seat. Neither is considering new taxes as a source of revenue for the parish.
“I’m actually the only council member that has voted against every tax that’s come up,” said Melancon, who is running for his second term. “I make sure to go out and talk with my constituents before I vote for anything.
“I feel we need to be going through our books now and finding ways we can save and be more efficient with our operations,” he said.
“I think the parish has kind of spoken quite loudly: No new taxes,” said Cagnolatti, a Gonzales councilman from 2008 to 2012.
“The parish is not broke. We have money,” he said. “It’s how we allocate it.”
Cagnolatti said the parish should follow a model of smart growth, balancing commercial and industrial projects with residential development. Cagnolatti said the possibility of impact fees “is worth a visit.”
“We have to study them very closely,” he said. “In other parts of the country, they’re a major source of revenues.” Melancon is in favor of impact fees, but said, “The devil’s in the details.”
“I think the new growth that’s coming in needs to pay for its impact and not put it on the back of the people who live here,” Melancon said.
Regarding the parishwide sewer system, Melancon said he’s been involved in some of the Parish Council meetings on the possibility of a public-private partnership for the project.
“It’s really the only way we’re going to get it done,” Melancon said.
But, he’s concerned about the cost of the service fees for residents.
“The median income for the parish is high, but we have a lot of people in the parish who don’t have high incomes, such as retirees, who can’t afford” a high monthly bill, Melancon said.
Cagnolatti said he’s in favor of a public-private partnership for the wastewater system, having seen how such a partnership resulted in the development of Kidz Kove Discovery Park in Gonzales.
“I’m in favor of public-private partnerships instead of burdening the taxpaying public,” he said. “The parish government runs and tries to do the best it can to serve the people. At times, though, I think things get lost in the shuffle.”
“I don’t think we need to hire more consultants,” he said. “Instead, go out and ask your constituents a single question: ‘What’s important to you?’ ”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.