Ascension Council approves $132 million budget Thursday; amendments are expected _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley

GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council agreed Thursday to a $132.5 million spending plan for the new year, setting aside $38.7 million on capital improvements for roads, major drainage, new lighting at parish parks and new soccer fields at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Among the road projects, the 2016 budget includes $5.2 million in state appropriations for a road connecting the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center to the Edenborne mixed-use development and La. 44.

Sheriff Jeff Wiley and outgoing Parish President Tommy Martinez have said the road will provide a critical second route to the parish-owned multiuse complex near Gonzales. Martinez said he hopes a ceremonial groundbreaking for that road could happen before the end of the year, though work is expected to start in 2016.

The budget sets aside money for up to a 4 percent pay raise for employees who report to the parish president but will leave it up to the new parish administration and council to make a decision on that raise next year, finance officials said.

The 2016 budget is the last under Martinez and could be subject to revision with Republicans Clint Cointment and Kenny Matassa running to replace Martinez and promising to take a close at parish spending.

Some council members said after a meeting Thursday — where the budget was approved without opposition or public comment — that the new administration can seek amendments.

“If there is something there that the new administration wants to tackle, they have to come back and justify doing an amendment to the budget,” said Councilman Benny Johnson, council vice chairman.

The council, for which 10 of 11 members already have been chosen by voters, would have to approve any changes. Council Chairman Randy Clouatre said the council amends the budget every year and predicted the 2016 budget would be amended no matter who wins Saturday’s election.

Not including grants, existing bond proceeds and other sources, the budget projects a slight drop or flat growth in Ascension’s primary revenue sources for 2016. The parish’s major sales and hotel taxes are projected to be a combined $50.1 million, while property tax revenue is estimated to be $20.7 million.

By comparison, total sales and hotel tax revenue in 2014 was $54.7 million and is projected to be nearly $51 million in 2015. Total property tax was $28.6 million in 2014.

Parish finance officials are conservative in their budget projections, preferring to amend the budget later or allow unbudgeted excess to go to surplus. This year, for instance, the 2016 budget projects that sales and hotel tax revenue in 2015 will come up short of the 2014 total, which was a record. But combined sales and hotel tax revenues collected so far in 2015 are actually on track to break the 2014 record.

Gwen LeBlanc, chief financial officer, pointed out that the $2.2 billion expansion of CF Industries is wrapping up in 2016 and, in the absence of new projects, the sales and hotel tax revenue drop in the 2016 budget could happen.

Still, years of record-breaking sales tax collections and continuing growth in property tax revenue from industrial projects and new people have improved the parish’s balance sheet and increased the government payroll since the late 2000s.

In 2016, the parish will have nearly 570 full- and part-time employees, up from 442 in 2007, the year before Martinez began two consecutive terms in office.

The surplus for the parishwide 1-cent sales tax, the parish’s largest general purpose revenue source, is expected to hit $25.1 million by the end of 2016. The general fund is expected to have another $11.1 million in surplus.

Martinez has said the sales tax surplus is a rainy day fund for hurricanes and economic downturns.

Overall surpluses across all funds are projected to drop in 2016 to $137.1 million from $152.4 million in 2015. Besides the $36.2 million in surpluses in the general fund and 1-cent sales tax, most of the remaining $101 million is in funds dedicated by voters for specific uses.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.