GONZALES — In a standing-room only meeting Tuesday, the Ascension Parish School Board unanimously approved property tax breaks sought for four industrial expansion projects.

More than 20 members of Together Louisiana, an initiative that has been critical of such tax exemptions, were at the meeting, along with industry representatives and other residents. 

The School Board's vote was the first time the board, along with Ascension Parish government and the sheriff, have been part of the tax exemption decision-making process, thanks to an executive order by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June 2016.

"These are good projects, good jobs," Kate MacArthur, president and chief executive officer of the Ascension Economic Development Corp., which recommended approval of the exemptions, said Tuesday.

"Manufacturing is a capital intensive industry," she said. "We appreciate the capital intensive projects when it comes to sales tax." 

The property tax exemptions approved by the School Board are for an eight-year period.

Under the executive order, all three governing bodies must agree on the industrial tax exemptions for the tax breaks to move forward to the state Commerce and Industry Board and the governor for their approval.

The Ascension Parish Council has also approved the maximum exemptions allowed by law for the four projects. The council's action last month was met by a lawsuit, filed Friday, by three Ascension Parish residents who are part of Together Louisiana, seeking to undo the vote, alleging the process violated the state's open meetings law.

Together Louisiana has called for the public bodies to establish standards for the awarding of the exemptions, as well as to publicly identify the companies involved.

The Ascension Economic Development Corp., which shepherds the companies through the process, is bringing the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) requests to the three taxing bodies on a per-request basis.

MacArthur said after the School Board meeting that she anticipates Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley will be making his decision on the tax exemption requests this week.

If the industrial tax exemptions are ultimately approved, it would mean a loss of about $48 million in tax revenue over eight years that would have otherwise been split among the taxing bodies.

With its "yes" vote Tuesday, the School Board approved exemptions from property taxes at 100 percent for five years and 80 percent for three years, the maximum allowed by the governor's executive order, for the four expansion projects.

In the past, all exemptions were 100 percent of local property taxes for two consecutive five-year terms.

Identified at this point by code names, a practice that MacArthur said is standard in economic development for competitive reasons, the projects are:

• Project Magnolia: A business seeking to build and operate a new plant in Geismar to supply an existing business via pipeline. The $145 million project would create seven new permanent jobs.

• Project Zinnia: A "first-of-a-kind in the world" demonstration plant, AEDC says, with breakthrough technology. The $25 million project would create two new permanent jobs.

• Project Bagel: A major employer looking to expand chemical capabilities. The $125 million project would create 15 new permanent jobs.

• Project Sunflower/Seed, a project that involves two companies, one a chemical producer, that would be "critically important for positioning them to be more competitive now and for years to come." The $167 million project would create eight new permanent jobs.

Earlier Tuesday, the School Board's Budget Committee had voted to recommend the board approve the requested industrial tax exemptions. The issue had died in committee last month, after some members wanted more time to study the issue.

Board members heard from a number of speakers both for and against the exemptions Tuesday during the public comment period.

First, however, the board members and audience heard from board member Troy Gautreau Sr., chairman of the Budget Committee, who opened the committee meeting with an emotional rebuttal to an email that went out this week to School Board employees from Together Ascension, with the subject line "Corruption is Wrong." 

In the email, Together Ascension, an organization under the umbrella of Together Louisiana, wrote, "The school board member who will preside over the vote Tuesday is Troy Gautreau, who is the IT director for Methanex, the largest recipient of industrial tax exemptions over the last 5 years. 

"It's pretty clear what's going on here. Mr. Gautreau's company will likely apply for exemptions in the future. And he's pushing board members to support these exemptions at 100 percent, so that his company can get them, too," the email says.

Responding to the email Tuesday night, Gautreau said, "Together Ascension knows I was not employed by Methanex when Methanex received the ITEP exemptions five years ago." 

And, he said, "the local school system did not have anything to do with approving ITEP applications" at that time.

"I want to be crystal clear that should Methanex apply for any future exemptions due to any expansion project or is affiliated with any expansions with other companies I would fully recuse myself," Gautreau said. "However, this is not the case with the four projects before us tonight and Methanex has absolutely nothing to do with them." 

The ITEP doesn't affect sales taxes, which industries pay when they purchase materials for plant construction projects, Gautreau added. 

"And Louisiana has the highest sales tax rate in the country," he said. 

Gautreau said that if inducements such as the industrial property tax exemptions are removed, "businesses will open shop in neighboring parishes, because they will welcome them with open arms and support the exemptions."

"However, their employees and families will live in Ascension, because they want their kids in our school system, and we will be left with the cost to educate them, without the tax benefit," Gautreau said. 

In the public comment period, Broderick Bagert with Together Louisiana apologized for the subject line on the email that had been sent out. 

"It was over-stated, and I want to apologize," he said.

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.