GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council agreed Monday night to ask west bank voters this fall whether to cut in half a nearly 37-year-old sales tax that helps fund Prevost Memorial Hospital in Donaldsonville.
The measure is part of a push led last year by Parish Councilmen Oliver Joseph and Bill Dawson, the council vice chairman and chairman, to cut the critical access hospital's half-cent sales tax in half and shift that quarter-cent to recreation for western Ascension.
The 5-3 council vote came in response to the hospital's board of commissioners' request. The board opposes putting the matter on the ballot but the Legislature passed a law requiring them too do it.
Before the vote, Randal Robert, the hospital board's attorney, told the Parish Council that the board believed the tax reduction would harm the hospital's future viability and the quality of care given to the people in western Ascension.
"They do not believe it is in the best interests of the hospital. They do not believe that it is in the best interests of the citizens of west Ascension, people who have relied on Prevost Hospital to provide them with medical care and services more than 60 years, but yet they are forced to put this resolution before you," Robert told the council.
The council was gathered in a special meeting Monday in Gonzales on one of its normal committee meeting nights to ensure the vote happened in time for the Nov. 6 ballot.
Dawson tried Thursday night to prevent the need for a special meeting by moving to amend the agenda of a regular council meeting last week to consider the putting the tax cut on the November ballot. But the effort failed when Councilman Todd Lambert voted against the amending the council agenda. The law requires a unanimous council vote to proceed.
Some council members such as Travis Turner said Monday they saw no problem in allowing west bank voters to weigh in on the hospital's services and the future of its tax.
"If you're really concerned about the people of Donadsonville, let them go ahead and make the vote themselves and stop trying to act as a gatekeeper," Turner told hospital officials.
But the vote also prompted an immediate response late Monday night from Parish President Kenny Matassa, who said the meeting was about the council's leadership's push "to cut health care services in West Ascension." He said that his administration has improved recreational facilities and opportunities for young people on the west bank and the cut to the hospital wasn't necessary.
"East Ascension gets 'both/and' solutions, but West Ascension gets 'either/or' solutions? That's not right, and that's why I oppose this council action," he said in a statement.
Matassa has veto power and has 10 days from the council's vote to act.
State Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, authored House legislation adopted last year when he was still a state representative, ordering the hospital board to put the tax reduction on a ballot no later than July 6, 2018.
The ballot measure in November, if adopted, would eliminate the quarter-cent. Joseph told the council Monday that voters will have to be asked at a later date whether they want to approve a new quarter cent tax for recreation.
Longtime officials running the hospital have vocally opposed the tax reduction plan since Dawson and Joseph floated the idea last year and, for a time, questioned whether they could simply refuse to put the matter on the ballot after Price's bill was adopted unanimously through both chambers in the Legislature. They have since determined they had to act.
Recreation in Ascension Parish lacks a dedicated revenue stream. Voters rejected a 5-mill property tax in 2014 that would have been dedicated to recreation parishwide. The parish sets aside about $2.5 million per year for west bank recreation from undedicated sources that also serve other parish needs.
At issue for Joseph, Dawson and other council members who appoint the hospital commissioners, however, has been the aging 25-bed hospital's condition and the size of its budget surplus. It had reached $24 million through mid-2017. Hospital officials have noted that surplus was greatly aided by a $2.1 billion expansion of the CF Industries complex that has since ended and said they were making plans to invest that money back into the hospital.
Council members have called for an accounting of hospital finances and plans for improvements. Before the vote, Councilman Aaron Lawler asked whether the hospital had widened bathroom doorways that were not able to handle patients in wheelchairs. Robert told Lawler that the hospital was not present Monday night to answer those kinds of questions but would do so in writing.
"If you can't answer the question, I'm going to assume the worst," Lawler said.
In closing remarks, Dawson noted that 83 percent of the people living in western Ascension weren't alive to vote on the hospital tax when it was adopted in 1980. Dawson noted that many Ascension Parish taxes, such as property taxes for firefighters and drainage, have 10-year renewal periods.
Opposed to the measure were Councilmen Todd Lambert, Daniel "Doc" Satterlee and Randy Clouatre. Council members Benny Johnson, Teri Casso and John Cagnolatti were absent.