Ascension grapples with growth, infrastructure needs _lowres

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Speaking from a newly renovated Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex on Presidents Day in 2006, then-Parish President Ronnie Hughes proposed an ambitious agenda to tackle the parish’s growth-related infrastructure woes.

In his State of the Parish talk, Hughes proposed a half-cent sales tax for roads, promoted transportation impact fees then already months into development and called for rededicating a small portion of sales tax revenue for sewer work, among other initiatives.

“We can and must put the politics of the 20th century into the trash bin of history as we lead Ascension Parish into the enormous possibilities of the 21st century,” Hughes then told parish officials, area legislators and others.

The first-term parish leader, who faced a divided Parish Council, called for it to put aside old fights and address pressing needs. Only four of the 11 council members showed up that night. There were quiet rumblings that Hughes was putting on airs with the big speech broadcast on the parish cable access channel.

Four months later, the Parish Council rejected impact fees by one vote. The new road sales tax and tax rededication for sewer were dropped. Hughes lasted one term.

Eight years later, on the heels of the failure of another proposed half-cent sales tax for roads in November 2012, a new group of parish leaders is rolling out a variety of funding mechanisms and policy changes to tackle the same daunting growth problems Hughes spoke about in 2006.

These include:

A new half-cent sales tax for parish roads on a future ballot

Council adoption of impact fees on new developments for new road capacity and possibly other parish services

Council creation of special taxing districts charging up to 15 mills in property taxes and special fees to maintain roads in new subdivisions

A new 5-mill property tax for a $30 million recreation plan and park maintenance on the November ballot, arguably freeing up money for roads

The parish’s taking over long-term maintenance responsibility of less heavily traveled state highways in exchange for upfront state cash to improve those or other roads now

Ascension Parish Councilwoman Teri Casso said the proposals reflect parish officials’ attempts to find a path forward.

“What I hear is, ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to do?’ The people are looking to us for leadership, and in the absence of leadership, they will just say, ‘no,’ ” said Casso, who chairs the council’s finance committee.

Sherrie Despino, president and chief executive officer of the Ascension Chamber of Commerce, said her group’s members do not yet appear to be fully tuned in to all the council is proposing but expects that to change.

One group eyeing the process closely is the Capital Region Builders Association, which has concerns about some of the proposals.

Lynda Evans, association executive vice president, attended a recent meeting of a special panel looking at impact fees and asked for a seat. Evans said her group is concerned about the affordability of housing if impact fees and the subdivision road taxing districts are both adopted.

“Then you’re looking at almost a double-dip on people who buy new homes in Ascension Parish because they will be paying both of those,” Evans said.

Backlogs and more people

Riding the post-Hurricane Katrina population wave, Ascension leaders faced a significant task in 2006 and continue to struggle to keep up with population growth.

The backlog to maintain and expand parish and state highways in Ascension is estimated at $900 million, parish officials said. Meanwhile, a long-sought regional sewer system on the east bank of Ascension is expected to cost $650 million to $700 million.

Revenue dedicated for parish road maintenance, which comes from two-thirds of a half-cent sales tax, falls short by about $3 million each year of what’s needed to keep the 507 miles of parish roads adequately maintained, parish officials estimate.

Meanwhile, the parish’s population continues to surge, as Ascension added 17,058 people between 2006 and 2013, growing l7.5 percent to 114,393 people, census estimates say.

“I expect growth to remain robust for the parish,” LSU demographer Troy Blanchard said.

An issue of trust

Some Parish Council members say parish officials have to overcome long-standing voter mistrust of parish spending before leaders can ask for more taxes.

During committee meetings Tuesday, Councilman Bryan Melancon called the attempts to bring new taxes to voters after they have said no previously “a slap in the face.”

Melancon said later that voters want to see parish government make cuts first. He noted that council members raised their own pay a few years ago and the parish continues to spend on the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center and the balloon festival, and on other purposes some regard as questionable.

Councilman Todd Lambert, a fiscal conservative who has taken a tough line on past taxing and spending proposals, surprised several officials this week when he proposed retrying a half-cent sales tax for roads.

Some on the council, who supported the November 2012 “Lanes for Change” sales tax, have reacted coolly to Lambert’s announcement, wanting more time to develop a road plan.

The 2012 failure has left some parish officials still wondering what exactly happened. Parish President Tommy Martinez said polling consistently showed 70 percent of voters consider roads to be the parish’s No. 1 priority.

Martinez blamed the loss in part on dedicated opposition that he said falsely portrayed the plan.

“I take a little blame, too,” Martinez said. “You know, maybe we just didn’t market it right or get the word out to the people in the right way.”

Martinez, a former police juror, said parish government still carries the stigma of the old police jury system of decades ago, when rules were not always followed.

But he argues the parish has had successive positive audits and yearly budgets that have cut operations and boosted capital spending.

“Parish government is like the beating post. Everybody beats on you,” Martinez said.

Least bad option for some

Despite the tough climate for new taxes, Lambert said he wants to take another stab at a road sales tax that could generate about $11 million annually.

Ascension Parish has a $111 million budget for 2014, but that big figure is boosted by one-time dollars for capital projects and is sliced up into several dedicated pots for firefighters, street lights, drainage and other services.

The general fund, which is the primary source of parish funding, gets most of its revenue from an undedicated 1-cent parish sales tax. Surpluses in that fund have been routinely used during Martinez’s administration to supplement roadwork not paid for by the parish’s only dedicated road funding source, the two-thirds share of a half-cent parish sales tax. The dedicated tax generates about $6.2 million per year for roadwork.

Meanwhile, the parish has been moving toward a public sewer as regulators have tightened water quality standards under court order and as years of rapid development aided by a proliferation of private sewer systems have sent nutrient-laden discharges into Bayou Manchac and surrounding waterways.

Last year, the council agreed to dedicate up to $3.3 million a year for 20 years from the general fund sales tax surplus — money that won’t be used on roads — to pay for a $60 million loan for a new parish sewer system in northern Ascension.

After the 2012 half-cent road sales tax failure, Martinez has discussed the possibility of no longer accepting new subdivision roads into the parish maintenance system, meaning they would be private roads that homeowners would maintain.

Martinez and other parish leaders also have been pushing legislation allowing the Parish Council to create special taxing districts only around new subdivisions. The roads would remain public under the districts but be paid for by the districts.

The legislation, SB617 by Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, has already gotten through the Senate. Debate on the House floor is scheduled for Wednesday.

Lambert singled out that proposal as imposing a hardship on new residents and creating homeowners association fees that will be unaffordable.

“So we have to do something. I’m all for it, and I’ll push for it,” Lambert said of a proposed new half-cent sales tax for roads.

Whatever the council and voters decide, the pressure to act remains.

On Wednesday, the parish Planning Commission learned subdivisions containing more than 1,900 new lots were in various levels of review and approval, including two new subdivisions granted a preliminary OK that night.

Planning Director Ricky Compton said he was still working on the details of the ordinance to create the proposed subdivision road taxing districts but that the preliminary votes on subdivisions Wednesday meant their roads would be solely parish responsibility.

“We’re probably going to add another 5 miles of roads to the parish maintenance system because none of these rules are in play,” Compton said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter at @NewsieDave.