GONZALES — Ascension Parish government officials defended a plan Thursday to hire an outside engineering firm to review new subdivision plans as both faster than the old in-house method and not any more expensive.
Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson told the Parish Council, which backed budgeting the change Thursday, that a financial evaluation showed that the parish’s existing revenue stream of fees that developers pay will cover plan review costs of typical reviews by the outside firm.
He estimates there will actually be money left over — about 23 percent of the existing revenue pool — that can pay for the staffing needs to help administer plan review, he added, as parish fee increases approved last year helped with the revenue picture.
“We’re very excited about the numbers we saw,” he said.
Those numbers were not seen during the meeting in Gonzales, but some council members said they had seen them previously and liked what they saw.
“Pretty much what you’re saying, this is paid by the developer, not out of the taxpayers’ pocket,” Councilman Todd Lambert told Dawson.
The administration of Parish President Kenny Matassa is restructuring how planning and other departments handle the review of new subdivisions in the fast-growing parish, shifting work away from in-house engineers to an outside firm.
The changes have come amid some upheaval in the Planning Department with the departure of its longtime director and a planner, both of whom the parish is trying to replace. But, even before those changes, some of those same former officials and others complained that they didn’t have enough staff to keep up with the pace of new projects.
Often arising in the back-and-forth process between parish reviewers and builders, the backlog showed up at Planning Commission meetings with incomplete drainage and traffic studies that usually proved critical to the commission’s decision-making.
Dawson made his comments Thursday as the council was considering a final vote to amend the budget and set aside $250,000 to pay for the outside firm. He was responding to Jeff Pettit, a Gonzales-area resident and critic of how the parish has handled growth. Pettit had suggested the parish has not yet delivered on Matassa’s promise to make the changes for plan review revenue-neutral.
Pettit proposed striking out the budget change — one of several the council was considering on various matters — and imposing a moratorium on new subdivision proposals until the administration came forward with a revenue neutral plan.
“This is not revenue neutral. I’m sorry. It’s $250,000, taxpayer dollars, OK? It needs to be revenue neutral. It is not. We were promised, and the promise has not been kept yet,” Pettit said.
The 11-member council didn’t take Pettit’s suggestion and approved the budget amendment without opposition. Council members Teri Casso, Daniel “Doc” Satterlee and Travis Turner were absent. Council Chairman Randy Clouatre does not vote except for a tie.
CSRS Inc. is already doing the work on a smaller contract in the interim, but the parish plans to conduct a request for proposals for the bigger, more permanent contract. Dawson said the council had to budget the $250,000 for the work before seeking proposals.
Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. added that in a few weeks, the council will consider requiring developers to pay for the parish’s hired review firm if developers’ plans and studies require more than two rounds of review.
Dawson said the financial analysis did not count revenue from those extra fees.
In other action, the council introduced an ordinance that clears the way for ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in the parish. A final vote is still pending.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.