GONZALES — The two men running to be Ascension Parish’s next president are promising they can find the money to tackle the parish’s growing road work backlog without raising taxes.
Nearly three years removed from voters’ resounding rejection of parish government’s proposal for a new half-cent sales tax for roads, Republicans Kenny Matassa and Clint Cointment have promised to be fiscal conservatives who will tame parish government’s $120 million budget, squeeze out savings to put toward infrastructure, and tap state and federal sources.
“I want to be a parish president that puts tax dollars on the ground instead of doing studies and studies of studies and wasting millions of our tax dollars,” Cointment said at a forum. “That’s our money, not government’s money, our money, and we’re wasting millions.”
Matassa said he would seek state grants to make narrow roads safer and use existing parish road dollars to match with state and federal road money through the Capital Region Planning Commission. The federal metropolitan planning organization has a pot of road money it funnels to the Baton Rouge area.
“You got to get in the game with them. You don’t just go to the MPO and say, ‘Highway 30 has bad traffic. I need you to help me.’ You got to be ready to act,” he said.
But the candidates’ plans for roads suggest, even under the most optimistic projections for savings, they will address only a fraction of a backlog commonly estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars and will be looking to a cash-strapped state for the biggest dollar projects without new local revenue.
Cointment, a Gonzales surveyor and businessman, and Matassa, a five-term Gonzales City Council member and 22-year parish employee and administrator, are vying in the Nov. 21 runoff. Matassa led Cointment 34 percent to 29 percent in a five-man primary Oct. 24.
Infrastructure challenges tied to growth have framed this election and the Parish Council races this fall. With 117,029 people in 2014, Ascension was the third-fastest-growing parish in Louisiana since 2010 at 9.2 percent, census estimates say. The parish has added more than 40,000 people since 2005.
But the candidates’ promises come against the backdrop of a booming parish economy that has boosted revenue and surpluses for a sales tax-reliant parish government. Ascension saw more than $6 billion in capital investment in business and industry since 2008.
All that construction has helped fuel three consecutive years of record sales tax collections in parish government since 2012. Collections in 2015 are expected to break records a fourth time, parish sales tax and finance officials said.
But the largest of Ascension’s big projects, the $2.1 billion expansion of CF Industries, in Donaldsonville, is projected to wrap up next year. Other major projects are also close to finishing or are finished.
Mark West, Ascension’s sales and use tax administrator, said he is guarded about revenue estimates and watchful for an imminent drop.
“I think this is as good of a time to make that assumption as any. You don’t take a $2.1 billion project out of the equation and not expect to suffer from it somewhat,” West said.
Mike Eades, CEO of Ascension Economic Development Corp., said more projects are in the pipeline, including major expansions, but none have been announced. He suggested a construction lull could come before other expansions occur.
In the past seven-and-a-half years under outgoing parish President Tommy Martinez, road spending has never been higher on average, an analysis of annual parish audits shows.
Ascension Parish government spent $88 million between 2008 and 2014 on road patching, construction and ancillary maintenance, or an average of $12.5 million annually, audits say. That’s 62 percent more than the $7.7 million spent annually, on average, between 2000 and 2007.
Strong sales tax years not only boosted revenue collected by Ascension’s only dedicated road sales tax but allowed surplus from the parish’s general purpose 1-cent sales tax to go to roads. Martinez also finished the spending from $16 million in road bonds issued under now-deceased former parish President Harold Marchand in 2001.
Of the total spent under Martinez so far, $48.7 million went to road construction, primarily annual road overlay projects, some turn lane projects and the rehabilitation of Roddy Road. Between 2000 and 2007, the two prior administrations spent $32.2 million on construction.
Since 2008, 81.5 miles of roads were rehabilitated, audits say. In a sign of increasing population, however, the parish also added 50 miles of new neighborhood roads into the parish system. For all that road spending, though, no new parish roads outside a subdivision were built and no parish road saw extra travel lanes added, Martinez has acknowledged.
Matassa and Cointment have expressed lukewarm support for road impact fees, but both predict something is likely to happen with them next year as the fees have gained currency this election cycle.
Neither man saw toll roads or the rededication of existing property taxes for roads as major options they were considering, both new revenue ideas proposed by opponents in the primary.
Figuring prominently in both candidates’ plans is the end of debt payments for the $16 million in bonds issued in 2001. The retirement of that debt will free up nearly $1.5 million per year from Ascension’s only dedicated revenue source for roads.
Residents in unincorporated parts of Ascension pay a half-cent sales tax for roads and firefighters. Two-thirds of the tax goes to roads.
Both Matassa and Cointment are counting on the extra money to boost dedicated road construction dollars from $6.5 million to $8 million. Cointment has projected unspecified savings in parish government spending could raise another $2 million or more a year. That would mean $40 million over four years, or possibly more, to road construction.
Mirroring the 2012 half-cent sales tax plan, Cointment said he would focus on improving intersections with new left-turn lanes and other measures to prevent backups. He said that, cumulatively, all those faster-moving intersections should ease traffic jams.
The failed 2012 half-cent sales tax plan called for $80 million in spending over 25 years on intersections when a half-cent generated $8 million per year. A half-cent now generates nearly $13 million.
Cointment said voters rejected the road tax, not because they didn’t like the plan, but because they didn’t trust the government implementing it.
Cointment also questioned where the $12.5 million per year in parish road spending went because, he said, voters don’t see it except in the road overlay projects done at election time.
“I don’t know what the breakdown is. I don’t know what the problem is, but there is some issue with dollar amounts that you are referring to. We should see some significant road work being done in the system somewhere,” he said.
Matassa is less specific on an amount he can save from parish government, but he has proposed issuing bonds with some parish road construction money and using that pot of funding to leverage with the Capital Region Planning Commission for a more significant project.
La. 30 is a major concern of his, he said, since the state Department of Transportation and Development has not moved forward with a series of roundabouts proposed for the La. 30/Interstate 10 interchange near Gonzales.
Matassa, who says he has been the assistant coach to three parish presidents and earned their trust to tackle major initiatives, claimed his years of experience would help him bring the cities, parish and state together, along with a good legislative delegation, to advance road projects.
“I think all that is going to help. Like I said, as far as being parish president, you got to know what to do and who to call. That’s the bottom line on anything you do,” he said.
Cointment said he also would work with DOTD on a 10-year plan for longer-term projects, and looking to DOTD makes some sense. Many of Ascension’s major thoroughfares are state highways.
But since 2008, the state has spent more than three times as much in Livingston Parish as it has in Ascension, DOTD figures say: $329.2 million to $100.4 million. About $218 million in Livingston went to expansions of Interstate 12, a corridor of cross-country commerce.
Sen.-elect Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, who is finishing three terms as an Ascension state representative, said state road money isn’t growing because it is tied to stagnant gasoline taxes.
“I don’t know how much money there is to squeeze. There is not much out there to get without a new revenue source,” he said.
At the same time, the expenditures the candidates are proposing from parish funds alone are dwarfed by the scale of Ascension’s road costs.
DOTD, for example, is expanding 3.7 miles of La. 42 from two to four and five lanes in Prairieville. The state and parish cobbled together money over more than 10 years to do the preliminary work leading up to construction. Once the road is built, in the spring of 2017, it will have cost an estimated $52 million to $62 million to build.