GONZALES — An Ascension Parish electorate that has trended more Republican during more than two decades of population growth is poised this fall to select a new chief executive for parish government for the first time in eight years.
Even with a new leader on the horizon, the parish largely faces the same infrastructure problems retiring Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez and other leaders had promised to tackle a generation ago. That means grappling with the impacts of Ascension’s constantly expanding population continues to be a major election theme.
Clint Cointment, Chris Loar and Kenny Matassa, three Republicans many see as the front-runners, have been battling for the mantle of fiscal conservative, promising to find a way to make parish government more efficient while also catching up with a massive infrastructure backlog. In the absence of new taxes, all three have also expressed at least some interest in new development impact fees, primarily for roads, if not an outright endorsement as Loar has offered.
Two Democrats and late entrants in the race, Clarence Henry Jr. and Ricky Diggs, also are running, and they also have taken anti-tax stances.
Even in the face of Ascension’s massive backlogs that all sides admit exist for roads and sewers, the anti-tax stances are smart politics.
Though some new fire and other special district taxes were approved in the mid-2000s, Ascension voters have not supported a new parishwide tax since they approved the parish’s only dedicated revenue source for roads and firefighters in 1994, a half-cent sales tax.
From 2012 to 2014, Ascension voters reiterated their anti-tax feelings four times, rejecting new and existing taxes for roads, firefighters and recreation.
The battle among the Republicans has been as much about style and story as it has been about the candidates’ broadly similar policy proscriptions.
Matassa, the five-term Gonzales city councilman, who also has 22 years in parish government as “assistant coach” to three parish presidents, touts his personal, on-the-ground contacts. He has the backing of many parish employees.
Loar is a two-term Parish Councilman and former council chairman. He has a background in technology and business that matches many of Ascension’s newcomer families to Prairieville.
Cointment, a Gonzales native, is the political outsider. A surveyor, he often talks about learning the parish by walking it with a level and GPS tools.
On the Democratic side, there’s Henry, a retired nightclub owner and carpenter from Donaldsonville, who wants to balance what the parish does by providing more for the west bank. Diggs, a retired teacher who does safety assessment for Turner Industries and lives in Gonzales, said he wants to unify the parish and improve its infrastructure.
But less than two weeks until the election with early voting underway and major ad buys only beginning to roll out, observers say the parish president’s race and other local races — six of 11 council seats and assessor are on the ballot — have not drawn much interest yet. Voters will make their picks on Oct. 24, with the top two contenders heading to a runoff on Nov. 21 if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.
“I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. You hear very little about the local races. I haven’t found any passion about it,” said Robert Poché, parish registrar of voters.
The scale of Ascension’s infrastructure woes is large, but the candidates say they have to find a way to address them without new taxes.
They all have suggested they could improve government efficiency to generate more revenue, possibly by a few million per year, and will wrangle more from the state Department of Transportation and Development. Whoever is elected parish president also will benefit from the $15 million in road bonds going off the books in 2016, freeing up $1.5 million a year in dedicated road money.
Cointment has offered the sharpest criticism of parish spending, which he says is not transparent to voters.
He has promised to stop studying the issue and start spending a $25 million surplus built up in the general fund and a $39 million surplus in the East Ascension drainage fund. He also pledged to improve transparency in government operations.
He also said he will re-evaluate a parish contracting process that does not give enough consideration to local firms but appears to allow work that doesn’t result in enough returns. Cointment has found fault with Matassa and Loar for accepting campaign donations from companies doing business with parish government, claiming it skews bidding.
“I’ve always advocated for transparency, and I believe that in my opinion that we’re not transparent and I think that leads to a distrust that leads to questions and, in order to figure out exactly where your tax dollars are going, you have to have transparency,” Cointment said.
He added he would do a televised quarterly report on parish government spending and put all monthly contractual hires in council minutes.
Both Loar and Matassa have said the donations would not influence their decision-making and told donors as much.
Loar has been more gentle in his criticism of parish government, saying it is operating in fourth gear and needs to move to fifth. He wants yearly evaluations and merit pay raises for parish employees, not across-the-board ones, and wants proactive workers.
“In my administration, I will make it clear, very clear early on, that people need to be willing to change,” Loar said.
Loar has taken fire from the Ascension Parish Republican Executive Committee, whose chair is a financial contributor to Cointment, for being a strong advocate of the failed road tax in 2012 and the failed recreation tax in 2014.
But Loar has countered that he believed voters needed the chance to decide on the propositions.
He said he believes he can generate more money for roads in three ways: improve parish government efficiency through greater use of technology, create partnerships with industry through emissions credits and the sale of water, and look at asking voters to rededicate some of Ascension’s dedicated millages for infrastructure funding.
Loar said he believes all the changes can add another $4 million in revenue and he wants to use freed-up debt capacity to do a new $30 million bond issue for roads. He also wants to make a major push for road impact fees.
Matassa said he also believes better efficiency can squeeze out more money for infrastructure, and parish employees should get eight hours of pay for eight hours of work.
Matassa said improved software in the parish Finance Department, which would cost $1 million, would also save money through reduced duplication.
He also looks to do a $30 million bond issue for roads on the existing road sales tax and is interested in seeking out safety grants to widen narrow roads.
Most of all, Matassa points to his years as a jack-of-all-trades in the parish as a sign of his ability to get things done.
He emphasized his leadership in handling special projects, such as the formation of the parish Building Department and the initial creation of the parish animal and mosquito control operations.
“I’ve worked for three parish presidents. Each one of them, I’ve had to prove myself,” Matassa said.
Henry said he got into the race because Ascension’s west bank has been neglected by parish government.
“Give the people what they need. The past parish presidents have done nothing for the west bank of the river,” Henry said. “I would serve all four corners of the parish, not just the east bank.”
On impact fees for roads and the sewer public-private partnership, Henry said he would need to study them further but feels the growing industrial sector could help improve parish roads he says their vehicles damage.
Though as parish president he would have little formal power on this issue, he also said he would like to bring back local police departments in Sorrento and Donaldsonville.
Henry said he also would like to see more parks for children on the west bank and also lamented the loss of retail stores in Donaldsonville, saying there is much beyond Wal-Mart that could be attracted to the area.
Diggs, a retired schoolteacher from Prairieville Middle School, said his selling point is his ability to work with people.
He said he favors impact fees and having developers pay for new growth’s effects on roads. As far as road improvements, Diggs said he would focus on turn lanes to prevent vehicles that are making left turns from halting traffic.
He said he also will take a sharp eye to government waste and parish employees.
“They need to put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and that’s what we need to do, hold parish workers accountable for the work that they are supposed to be doing,” he said in a recent forum.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.