Improving roads, drainage and other infrastructure in Ascension Parish and finding a way to pay for that work without new taxes were major themes Thursday night as the three Republican candidates for parish president squared off in an election forum.

Facing a parish electorate that, in three years, has overwhelmingly rejected three proposed tax increases for roads, firefighters and recreation, each of the candidates promised a packed audience at Carli-Co Café in Gonzales that, if elected Oct. 24, they would find a way to do more without asking for more taxes.

As in past elections, finding ways to keep up with the parish’s rapid growth permeated many of the randomly selected questions posed by moderator Matt Pryor at the Ascension Republican Women GOP Roundtable forum.

With a population of 117,029 in 2014, Ascension was the third-fastest growing parish in Louisiana, at 8.5 percent between 2010 and 2014. In the prior decade, Ascension was the fastest-growing statewide at nearly 40 percent from 2000-2010.

But Gonzales City Councilman Kenny Matassa, Ascension Parish Councilman Chris Loar and Gonzales-area surveyor Clint Cointment also tried to draw distinctions among themselves as the most fit to replace four-term Parish President Tommy Martinez as the parish’s chief executive.

Matassa, a five-term city councilman who has worked in parish government for 23 years, called himself the “assistant coach” to three parish presidents and said he has the experience to get the job done.

“You can’t just walk in this job with no experience,” Matassa said. “I promise you. It’s a hard job.”

Loar, a two-term Ascension Parish Councilman and a former Internet technology executive with Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, said he has the mix of government and business experience to run the parish efficiently and creatively and could “hit the ground running” if elected.

Cointment, a Gonzales-area surveyor who is making his first run for elective office, said his experience is in not making past poor decisions that have left Ascension in its current situation. He said his experience is running a small business and treating people fairly.

“Think about it. When you want somebody to represent you, when you have to go see the parish president, do you want a politician with all this experience? Or do you want somebody that’s going to treat you fair? Who’s going to look you in the eyes and is going to tell you the truth? Because that’s what I want,” Cointment said in probably one of the strongest applause lines of the night.

On fiscal conservatism and infrastructure spending, Loar, a former Parish Council chairman, said the parish’s property tax structure needs to be modified so revenue is available for infrastructure.

The comment came in response to a question about the parish’s voter-dedicated property taxes some say restrict funding for other purposes. The question cited as an example the 6.8 mills the library receives.

In 2010, Loar had unsuccessfully pushed to eliminate 2.6 mills from the library by keeping it from going up for renewal and shifting the millages to roads. On Thursday, he promised not to be afraid to take on other “sacred cows.”

“I think that’s one of the key ways to make progress in this parish, besides running government more efficiently, is right-sizing our tax structure,” he said.

Loar, who has come under fire for voting to support the parish’s failed tax initiatives, said he does not support new taxes.

“In fact, in my time on the council, despite what you may have heard, I have never voted for a tax increase. I have supported the right of the voters to make an informed decision at the ballot box,” he said.

Matassa said he is not for new taxes but for new taxpayers.

“I commit to you tonight to work diligently to continue economic development (efforts) to get the economy growing for new jobs to come to Ascension Parish where we will have new taxpayers paying taxes already on the roll,” he said.

He said he is the only candidate who has cut taxes, having voted during his tenure on the city council to cut taxes by 30 percent.