PRAIRIEVILLE — Parish President Tommy Martinez said the word “tax” means “no” in Ascension Parish.
Voters have not approved a new parishwide tax for Ascension government in 20 years.
Despite mounting pressure for more money to build new roads and provide other services in the parish, a wide majority of voters said “no” to three proposals for new taxes in the last three years: a half-cent sales tax for roads in 2012, a property tax in 2013 to transition from volunteer to paid firefighters in East Ascension and, on Tuesday, a property tax to pay for recreation.
“People are hurting right now. They’re struggling to make ends meet. Why do we need to be taxed for anything else, you know, when that’s just a luxury. It’s not a necessity in life,” Pearl Robbs, 50, of Prairieville, said as she left the polls Tuesday at Oak Grove Primary School. Robbs said she voted against the recreation tax.
Ascension Parish was the state’s fastest-growing parish between 2000 and 2010 and third-fastest over the last three years, but starkly different visions have emerged over how to deal with the impacts of population growth.
The last parishwide tax was approved in 1994 when a half-cent sales tax for roads and firefighters was adopted, though smaller district taxes were passed in the mid-2000s for fire and water service.
In response, parish leaders have proposed expansive plans with sizable price tags that they said were an attempt to catch up with infrastructure backlogs.
Critics of taxes say residents don’t trust parish government to spend the money as promised or that the parish doesn’t even need the money in the first place. They want a more limited government that works within its means and moves more slowly to address those problems.
“I think people are tired of taxes. They told them ‘no’ twice, and they keep putting taxes on the ballot. What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” asked Kathryn Goppelt, chairwoman of the Ascension Parish Republican Party Executive Committee and an organizer of anti-tax campaigns against the past three proposals.
Martinez said the climate in Ascension, as it is nationally, is not conducive to passing a new tax.
“It’s just like I said, ‘Tax equals no,’ ” Martinez said.
He said the parish can pursue grants and use existing revenues to attack parish problems, but that will not be enough.
“You’re never going to get better. It’s a slow, slow process to try to pay for everything with grants,” Martinez said.
Riding record sales tax collections the last year and a half due to historic industrial expansion in Ascension, the Parish Council agreed Thursday to spend nearly $7 million on the annual road overlay program, one of the largest expenditures in that program in recent years.
However, keeping up with the parish’s annual road maintenance needs is now estimated at $10 million a year, Martinez said, and none of that spending addresses added road capacity.
In 2011, Martinez beat Goppelt in a landslide after taking 72 percent of the vote and was returned to office with a Parish Council majority behind him. He walked into his second term in office in January 2012 with thoughts of a mandate for action and a rare opportunity in parish politics.
The previous decade had been marked with administrations and councils turning over every four years so that the newly elected group often was undoing what the prior group had begun to implement, meaning not much headway was made.
In 2011, most of the same group of parish leaders had four years under their belts and were re-elected with an eye toward attacking long-discussed promises to fix road, sewer and other troubles. But Martinez and other parish officials have said they were caught off guard in November 2012 when voters flocked to the polls with President Barack Obama’s re-election on the ballot.
Voters rejected a 25-year, half-cent sales tax for roads, 57 percent to 43 percent, with a 72.2 percent turnout, even though roads have consistently polled as voters’ top concern in Ascension.
Though critics said the plan was too vague, offered too little and spent parish money on state highways, supporters said the plan was not promoted enough during a presidential election year. They also believe the road tax was confused with separate and contentious parish plans to take over maintenance of rural state highways in exchange for one-time state highway money.
After a new 15-mill property tax and parcel fees for parish Fire Protection District No. 1 failed in May 2013 with a 58 percent to 42 percent margin amid opposition from some volunteer firefighters and low voter turnout, parish officials decided to spend nearly $200,000 on an educational campaign for the 10-year, 5-mill recreation tax on Tuesday’s ballot.
Officials said they were buoyed by the fact that this plan, which proposed a new recreational complex at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, a new performing arts center and upgrades to all parish parks, came from residents who approached the council. They formed a potential voting constituency of parents already involved with recreation.
But the recreation tax failed Tuesday by an even larger margin than the previous two tax proposals. While no official analysis has been made, some officials wondered whether the failure was because of the large number of voters who went to the polls to vote in races where the control of Congress was at stake.
Sixty-two percent of voters rejected the recreation tax versus 38 percent who voted for it. Voter turnout was nearly 50 percent in Ascension Parish.
“I mean, we had never had more people come to a meeting in favor of something,” Councilman Chris Loar, one of backers of the tax, said of grass-roots organizers who spoke out for the tax at council meetings.
He said the apparent support helped convince parish officials to give the tax a shot.
“We had a good grass-roots association, but it didn’t matter. The economic climate, it doesn’t matter what it is. A tax isn’t going to pass,” Loar said.
While voters have resisted new taxes, they have regularly supported tax renewals for parish government, but on Tuesday, renewal of parcel fees for the Prairieville Fire Department also failed 51 percent to 49 percent, though a 10-mill property tax for the department was renewed.
Walter Leftwich, chairman of the board overseeing the department, was having a hard time this week figuring out how the fees failed but suspected general anti-tax sentiment and the proximity of the two fire district proposals to the recreation tax on the ballot probably hurt.
“It’s hard to believe they would vote down a dedicated tax for the fire service, you know, but I don’t know that I can say what the feelings of the people are,” Leftwich said.
Leftwich said the loss of the $470,000 per year the fees would have generated will slow that drive but not stop it.
Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, who opposed the fire tax renewals and the new recreation tax, said parish leaders can’t afford to appear out of touch with residents, who he had believed would reject the recreation tax handily.
But Satterlee, who is involved with the effort to bring public sewer service to Ascension, said the opportunity for a new tax for infrastructure still exists. The parish has work to do first, though.
“Show the people that we can be good stewards and shepherds of their money. Produce results that they can see, you know, taste and feel, and then, yeah, we can go forward and ask maybe for a tax for a vital infrastructure need,” Satterlee said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.