GONZALES — Three Ascension Parish residents who are part of the Together Louisiana movement sued the Parish Council Friday, seeking to undo votes that recommended exempting property taxes for new industrial projects in the parish worth $462 million.
The residents allege in their suit that the process violated the state's open meetings law, in part, because the names of the industries receiving the tax exemptions were not disclosed but were rather identified on a Parish Council meeting agenda last month with "fictitious" code names, such as Magnolia, Bagel and Sunflower Seed.
An earlier Finance Committee agenda also did not disclose even the code names nor say a vote to recommend the exemptions to the full council was expected, the suit alleges.
GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council on Thursday approved the maximum industrial property…
The plaintiff's attorney, Brian Blackwell, said Friday at a news conference that Ascension's approval process "smacked" of the backdoor deals that have given away billions in Louisiana tax dollars.
"For far too long, we, as citizens, and the people behind me included, have allowed government and industry to make back door deals that the public wasn't involved in, and what happened at the Finance Committee meeting of the council, as well as the council meeting itself, smacked of this same thing," Blackwell said, flanked by some of the plaintiffs in the suit.
"Those types of things in the 20th century cost Louisiana billions and billions of dollars, and this lawsuit seeks to halt the practice and to bring sunshine to the process," he said.
Martin McConnell, a parish government spokesman who was present for the news conference, said afterward that he could not discuss a lawsuit he had not yet seen.
Long the province of the state alone, Louisiana's lucrative Industrial Tax Exemption Program has been shifted to the local arena since an executive order last year from Gov. John Bel Edwards. Under the order, for the first time, local governments — parish councils or police juries, sheriffs and school boards — are required to vote on industrial property tax exemptions before the state can approve them.
In the past, decisions on tax exemptions were made at the state level without local input — even though the exemptions had an impact on property tax revenues going to schools, infrastructure and police services.
Together Louisiana was among the advocates pushing Edwards for the executive order to inject more openness into a tax exemption process that dates from the 1930s. With the suit, members of the group are pressing their hand further and driving for more transparency, they say, by challenging the process in industry-heavy Ascension, where Together Louisiana says $1.8 billion in industrial exemptions were granted between 1998 and this year.
GONZALES — Poised to decide on whether to grant full industrial property tax exemptions to f…
Yet, even with the huge property tax exemptions granted in Ascension through the years, the parish's industrial sector remains a top employer, property taxpayer, sales tax contributor and giver to community causes.
BASF, one of the proposed recipients of the tax exemption now being challenged, was the parish's second largest employer and property taxpayer in 2016. The new BASF project, which involves another unnamed company and is code-named Sunflower/Sunflower Seed, would invest $167 million combined, create eight jobs and cost parish taxpayers $20.1 million in incentives over eight years.
While Together Louisiana and its offshoot organizations haven't opposed the exemption program outright, its members have argued they are too generous for the economic benefits that are realized. Last month, members of Together Louisiana did call on the School Board to reject the exemptions and give them more scrutiny and also challenged the openness of the Parish Council's process. The council granted the full exemptions for all five projects.
Though never mentioned in the public meetings, Together Louisiana asserted Friday the exemptions for the five projects will cost parish taxpayers $55.6 million over eight years and generate 32 new jobs if eventually approved by the state.
"We need public services, better roads, overhauled sewer system, parks and, yes, better schools, yet seeing public bodies exhibit such a cavalier attitude toward potential sources of funding is troubling," said George Armstrong, one of the plaintiffs and a member of a Together Louisiana offshoot, Together Ascension.
Dr. Henrynne Louden, another plaintiff and a retired pediatrician from Prairieville, said anyone who looks at the project code names would think it is "ludicrous" to spend tax dollars on them without "appropriate transparency."
"This is not a spy movie," she said. "We are talking about moneys that do not go to the schools. We are talking about moneys that are taken from the public pot."
When asked by a reporter to respond to council members' claims that the confidentially is needed to protect companies' competitive advantage, Blackwell said the identities must be public on agendas in advance of votes at the committee or council level.
"It is at that moment that it's got to be public because how else would a public official even know what they were voting for. We're voting to give tax exemptions to things that we don't even know. It may be some company, for example, that has blown up 10 times in Ascension Parish, and you're building ... rebuilding it again with tax dollars," Blackwell said.
Blackwell added that open meetings law exemptions for economic development negotiations stop once projects reach the council or any of its committees for a decision. He said that other public bodies and their committees, including the School Board, face the same disclosure requirements, but probably not the Ascension Economic Development Corporation, which meets publicly and does the early recruiting, negotiating and vetting of major projects in the parish.
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Even on Friday, the identities of the incentive recipients had not been formally disclosed by parish government or School Board, which is expected to weigh a decision on the exemptions Tuesday. The School Board was not named in the suit.
In an interview last month, Parish Council Chairman Bill Dawson did disclose BASF's identity after arguing before AEDC that the incentive, despite its relatively small size, was critical to retaining the key employer and taxpayer.
GONZALES — Since Gov. John Bel Edwards' changes to the state's industrial tax exemption last…
In addition to Louden and Armstrong, the other named plaintiff is Lana Williams, an Ascension Parish public school teacher and parish resident since early childhood. Armstrong is a 15-year resident of Dutchtown and retired minister, state budget analyst and LSU economics instructor.