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Ascension Parish presidential candidates, from left, Clint Cointment, Ricky Diggs, Murphy Painter and Rick Webre participate in a forum in the Ascension Parish council chambers Wednesday Sept. 25, 2019, in Gonzales, La.

DONALDSONVILLE — In his final budget as Ascension Parish government's chief executive, Parish President Kenny Matassa and his administration proposed a $220 million plan for 2020 that sets aside nearly half its spending on roads, new levees, ditch clearing and fire station and courthouse construction.

The project-heavy budget plan comes as population growth and infrastructure have been regular points of discussion for the four men seeking to replace Matassa in the Oct. 12 primary: Clint Cointment, Ricky Diggs, Murphy Painter and Rick Webre. 

Diggs is a Democrat. Webre, Painter and Cointment are Republicans. Early voting ends on Saturday.

Council members, who were seeing the draft budget for the first time Thursday, had few questions for the administration officials. The council is expected to consider budget for final adoption Nov. 21. 

In all, more than $109 million has been set aside for major capital expenditures next year, which Gwen LeBlanc, the parish government's chief financial officer, called a "very aggressive" plan. The capital plan is largely funded with bond revenue, grants and some earmarked surplus already in hand.

The spending total is more than double what the parish expects to spend by end of 2019, and it's not clear the parish can actually complete all those projects before 2020 ends.

The other side of the budget, operations, calls for a 6% increase in spending, up from $104.3 million in 2019 to $110.7 million in 2020. Operational spending includes not only the parish's payroll, but also some major equipment purchases, like new fire trucks, and a variety of building repairs, from leaking roofs to faulty air-conditioners.

The budget calls for about 443 full- and part-time employees, which is up about 10 positions from 2019. But fully a quarter of those employees — 121 — don't report to the parish president but are part of the court system, firefighters or other positions.    

That side of the budget also builds in up to a 5% cost-of-living increase for parish employees who do report to the parish president, though it would be left to the council to set the final amount.   

The operational spending counts a $3.8 million revenue increase made up primarily of projected sales and property tax revenue increases and new grant revenue. But even with the increases, the budget must tap nearly $6 million in surpluses.

In the past, administrations have carried over unfinished major capital projects, which might be waiting on permits, design, land or other steps, to the next budget year. The transition between 2019 and 2020 will be no different.

The 2020 budget sets aside $24 million for the long-running Laurel Ridge levee extension, which has been tied up in court after Livingston Parish government sued to block it.

Other projects have more prospects of happening in 2020, assuming a new administration doesn't change priorities.

The budget calls for nearly $19.4 million in road spending under the Move Ascension program. That's in addition to nearly $6 million outside the program that has been set aside for traditional overlay work and a handful of other jobs.

Also, just less than $18 million has been set aside in 2020 for construction of a new courthouse on East Worthey Street in Gonzales, next to the parish administrative complex.

Funded with bonds paid for with new civil court filing fees and additional revenue from the parish Clerk of Court and Sheriff's Office, the nearly $29 million building is already under construction and is projected to be finished by the end of 2020.

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