Long-planned upgrades to Prevost Memorial Hospital in Donaldsonville are expected to get underway sometime next year after western Ascension Parish voters on Nov. 6 rejected a proposal to cut the hospital's sales tax.
Sitting on a $20 million surplus, officials who run the 25-bed critical access facility had been developing plans to renovate and expand the hospital built and opened in 1968. But those plans were sidelined as parish officials began pushing nearly two years ago to ask voters to back a reduction of the hospital's sales tax by half.
Parish Council members who represent the west bank had pushed for the measure as the first step in a two-step plan to create a quarter-cent sales tax for west bank recreation that would generate $600,000 annually.
With nearly 49 percent turnout, voters in the district rejected the proposition to cut the half-cent sales tax to a quarter-cent, 58 percent to 42 percent. The measure failed by 549 votes, with 1,939 voting no and 1,390 voting yes.
Hospital officials, who run Prevost under a quasi-public hospital service district and have board members appointed by the council, contended the loss in future tax revenue could undermine Prevost's long-term viability.
By law, they were forced to put the tax measure on the ballot this year, which they opposed, and then had to argue to voters that, counter-intuitively, a "no" vote was what actually supported the hospital's future.
The vote was one of two tax measures on the Nov. 6 ballot in Ascension. The other, renewal of the 10-year, 5-mill East Ascension drainage tax, was adopted 67 percent to 33 percent. Only east bank voters cast ballots on the renewal.
Hospital Administrator Vince Cataldo said he believes the closure of the Sunshine Bridge just downriver of Donaldsonville after a barge collision Oct. 12 may have played a role in the vote's outcome.
Though the closure initially did not create a significant boost in traffic for the hospital, he said, that has since changed.
"There's a tremendous increase in volume. People are getting tired of having to wait in line," Cataldo said, adding the hospital put out advertising to raise its profile.
Parish President Kenny Matassa, a Donaldsonville native who opposed the hospital tax plan, shared Cataldo's assessment about the bridge closure.
“When you’ve got a sick baby in the middle of the night, you want to know you have a place to go for care. That was a deciding factor for a lot of people,” Matassa said.
Cataldo also charged that Parish Council members' tough questioning of hospital officials and their finances in public meetings scared away renovation contractors and added that members required that a hospital needs assessment be done and that no work happen until after the tax vote.
With the vote finished, Cataldo said, he expects the improvements will begin next year after they are approved by the state Department of Hospitals, Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office and other agencies.
"As soon as we can get through all the hoops," Cataldo said.
Councilman Oliver Joseph, who represents the west bank and pressed for the tax vote, said he accepted the people's decision.
"From the beginning, I said, 'Let's put it on the ballot, so the people can make a choice for themselves,' and the people have spoken and they made their choice," Joseph said.
Council Chairman Bill Dawson, who also represents the west bank, shared a similar sentiment as Joseph's, saying voters got a chance to decide again on a tax that had remained on the books since it was first adopted in November 1980.
"However people voted, that's the right answer," Dawson said.
But the vote also means their plan to create a separate, dedicated source of funding for west bank recreation without raising taxes is likely dead.
That failure also means, Joseph said, west bank recreation funding will remain at current levels without some other plan for added cash.