GONZALES — On a recent October evening in what is normally football season, J. Leo Stevens Park in Ascension Parish was chock full of young baseball players and their parents, with the exception of one field, which had no working lights.
In the fall baseball season put on by the Ascension Baseball Committee, no score is kept and the nearly 400 children participating work on fundamentals and try out different field positions, said Dean Meaut, president of the nonprofit baseball committee.
“I think the recreational facilities in Ascension Parish should be upgraded. We pale in comparison to other parishes,” said Meaut, who said his league has 1,500 children playing in the spring.
Voters across all of Ascension, including those in its three municipalities, will have a chance Nov. 4 to weigh in on a new 10-year, 5-mill property tax to address some of those shortcomings Meaut and others say exist in parish recreation. Early voting began Tuesday.
The tax, which would be the first dedicated recreation tax for Ascension Parish government, is expected to provide $58 million over 10 years. Backers have argued for months that the upgrades are aimed at keeping residents in Ascension inside the parish instead of having them trek to Baton Rouge and other parishes in the region for recreation. Ascension has one of the youngest populations in Louisiana.
Councilman Chris Loar, who also was an early supporter of the tax along with Councilman Travis Turner, chairman of the Council Recreation Committee, said the plan was created by a group of residents as the half-cent drainage sales tax was two generations ago.
Loar said the tax represents a modest request to invest in the community, improve quality of life and keep people in Ascension.
“I think that’s something that people need to think about. We are one of the only parishes around that doesn’t have a dedicated recreation tax and so we’re falling behind by choosing not to fund recreation,” Loar said.
He also argued that by dedicating recreation money, the parish will free up general fund sales tax revenue for roads. About $2.5 million a year is drawn from the parish general fund for recreation.
Almost half of the dedicated tax dollars would be used to maintain parks. The other half, about $31.8 million, would pay for major capital construction across the parish as well as related engineering and contingencies.
The tax would pump $11.6 million into 21 existing parish parks on the east and west banks and the Gonzales Kidz Kove Discovery Park. Another $8.6 million would be used to build a new sports complex on vacant land at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center. A performing arts complex in a yet-to-be-determined location would cost another $7.1 million.
Local park upgrades include new spray grounds, dog parks, walking trails, new lighting and parking and new water access to parish bayous.
On a $200,000 house with homestead exemption, the new tax would cost $62.50 more per year on annual tax bills, or about $5.21 per month, backers say.
Some residents watching the games earlier this month at Stevens Parks said they would support the tax.
“I would definitely. This is a big part, you know, of my son’s life. Baseball is his one love here,” Andrea Kosick, 33, of Gonzales, said during the Oct. 9 game.
Her son Dalton Norris, 11, was playing for the Purple Team. Kosick said her daughter Reagan, 5, is active in dance and could benefit from the performing arts center.
Rachelle Dimm, 37, of Galvez, whose son Carter Dimm, 11, also was playing baseball that night, said some families consider leaving the parish leagues for other ones because of the condition of the fields.
“I mean if my son didn’t play baseball, he’d be just sitting at home and playing video games or no telling what else he’d be doing,” Rachelle Dimm said. “He loves baseball and to have somewhere that’s well-maintained and safe and makes them want to come play, that’d be a good thing.”
But the tax proposal has drawn critics, including some on the Parish Council, and inspired a campaign by the Ascension Parish Republican Party Executive Committee to reject the tax. The group is already sending out fliers telling voters to “strike out” the new tax.
Kathryn Goppelt, a former candidate for parish president, longtime parish government critic and chairwoman of the party executive committee, said parish government has enough money and needs to pay for recreation upgrades piecemeal.
Goppelt pointed out that the parish is flush with increases in new sales and property tax revenue due to population and industrial growth. She provided a summation of parish budgets for 10 years showing total government revenues rose from $44 million in 2003 to $123.9 million in 2013.
“The big picture is the parish is growing with tax revenues, both property taxes are up 21 percent and sales taxes are up 24 percent just in one year, and so we’ve got plenty of money,” Goppelt said.
Others have pointed out for months that recreation, while important, is a lower priority than Ascension’s massive roads and sewer backlog. They also see the parish as untrustworthy of a new influx in cash.
“In good conscience, I cannot support a tax for recreation when we have much more important, vital and increasing needs: roads, transportation and drainage and sewer,” Parish Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee said.
Some residents also look at the condition and oversight of existing parish parks and wonder if more money is the right answer.
Amanda Hilgendorf, 35, who lives in Parkview Oaks in Prairieville, said the Southwood Park and Playground across from her house has become a draw for teens looking for mischief late at night.
In addition, a neighbor, who is a school bus driver, is parking her bus at the public park, which, Hilgendorf said, is providing a place for teens to hide.
Hilgendorf, who lives in Parkview with her husband, Jamie Swilley, said many of her neighbors oppose the tax and aren’t sure upgrades at that park will help.
“Whether it’s renovated nice or not, I think that most residents are more concerned with that than them actually doing anything with it,” Hilgendorf said.
The problems have been reported to various public officials, Satterlee said, and sheriff’s deputies have promised to step up patrols.
The proposal also heads to the ballot in a tough environment for new taxes in Ascension. Voters rejected a proposal in 2012 that attempted to address roads, which has consistently polled as parish residents’ top concern.
Voters turned down a new property tax and parcel fees for firefighters in a large swath of unincorporated Ascension in 2013 now served by volunteer firefighters.
Fire and utility districts covering only parts of Ascension have gotten three new taxes passed since 2005, but parish government has not gotten a new parishwide tax passed since voters approved a half-cent sales tax for roads and fire in 1994.
John Diez, a pollster and demographer in Ascension, said the recreation tax has a chance but faces an uphill environment.
He said the 2012 road tax, which he said was complicated, was on the presidential ballot and had to compete with the saturated media messaging. This election, he said, supporters have more opportunity to get their message out.
But he said while young parents might be in favor of the tax, supporters also have to reach voters 45 and older whose children have left the home and recreation is no longer on the top of their minds.
“In order for them to pass it, they have got to convince people who probably will not use that product that it’s good for the community,” Diez said.
Parish government hired a public relations firm at a cost of nearly $190,000 to educate the public about the plan. Most of that money is going to media, including TV commercials, radio spots, fliers and social media campaigning.
Turner said opposition to the tax was expected but believes it is getting a positive reception overall.
“All we can do is present a good plan to the people and give them an opportunity to pass it or shoot it down,” Turner said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.