GONZALES — The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office found earlier this month that a future water impact fee in Ascension Parish is a fee the Parish Council can adopt, but not a tax that requires voter approval.
This legal opinion would seem to bolster some parish officials’ case that such fees are a legal means of raising new revenue that don’t need voters’ approval at the ballot box.
But Ascension Parish government is not proposing a water impact fee, a variety of parish officials said, and they never sought the attorney general’s opinion or were even aware of that opinion had been issued May 15.
Lester Kenyon, parish government spokesman, said Wednesday that he asked Parish President Tommy Martinez, Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson, Planning Director Ricky Compton and Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. about the opinion on water impact fees.
“They all gave me that look of ‘What are you talking about?’” Kenyon said.
Parish officials added that Ascension already collects a 5 percent franchise fee from the parish’s largest private water provider. The fee revenue has been used to install fire hydrants throughout Ascension.
It turns out state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, asked for the opinion at the request of the Capital Region Builders and Louisiana Home Builders associations.
But Ponti, who is a builder and a member of both groups, said Friday that the opinion primarily arose from concerns about the city of Gonzales’ adoption sewer impact fees.
He said the associations — both have traditionally opposed impact fees — wanted to know what steps had to be taken to implement the fees. That the AG’s opinion delves into water impact fees, as opposed to other kinds, was apparently a miscommunication, he said.
Ponti, who does not represent a single voter in Ascension Parish, defended the appropriateness of his interest in Ascension’s governmental matters. He said what happens in Ascension affects businesses in the Baton Rouge region and that his role as a legislator is not limited to House District 69 in suburban Baton Rouge.
“I also represent the entire state. All of my votes in the Capitol are not specific to my district, and this is no different,” Ponti said.
Impact fees are an attempt to have developers and others pay for stresses put on roads, sewers and other infrastructure. With traffic impact fees, for instance, fees on new housing could go toward increasing road capacity.
Lynda Evans, executive vice president of the Capital Region Builders and a member of an Ascension impact fee subcommittee, said the request from her group was about Gonzales’ sewer impact fees.
Under AG’s Office rules about the issuance of its opinions, elected state officials can request opinions on legal questions related to state law.
The city of Gonzales adopted sewer impact fees in October 2013 with little opposition from the public. The fees took effect in January 2014.
Ponti said he believed he requested the opinion about nine months ago, but his request letter to the Attorney General’s Office is dated March 17, 2015, and does not mention Gonzales at all. The letter delves into Ascension’s home rule charter and argues new traffic and water impact fees in Ascension would be illegal taxes without a public vote.
“The Ascension Parish Planning Commission has discussed both implementing traffic impact fees, which actually came to a vote and failed to pass, and water impact fees on new residential and commercial developments,” Ponti wrote.
As Louisiana’s fastest growing parish and a suburban hot zone for Baton Rouge, Ascension has toyed with the idea of impact fees for roads and even new sewer systems for at least a decade.
Amid opposition from homebuilders and others, though, successive Parish Councils have remained divided over the issue and, in 2006, the council failed to amass the necessary two-thirds majority to adopt the fees.
Gasper Chifici, a parish planning commissioner and head of the parish subcommittee looking at traffic impact fees, said the subcommittee has recently agreed to update a 10-year-old traffic impact fee study and will probably bring back a recommendation on impact fees in 2016.
But Chifici said he also was unaware of any talk of a water impact fee by the subcommittee. He noted most of Ascension is served by private water companies and was puzzled how a service-based water fee could even be used.
Notably, the new AG’s Office opinion says Ascension faces no requirement to conduct a study to set fees but must determine that the cost of the fees “does not materially exceed” the cost of the service being provided.
Parish President Martinez said he called Ponti to find out what was happening. Martinez said he told Ponti that he should have given parish officials a courtesy call in advance. He said Ponti apologized.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.