SORRENTO — Town officials said Thursday they are scrutinizing what legal basis Ascension Parish officials have in refusing to clear out roadside ditches within town limits, even though Sorrento residents pay the same special drainage taxes as other east bank residents in the parish.
Sorrento residents voted nearly 3 to 1 last month to help extend a 5-mill drainage property tax for another 10 years across eastern Ascension Parish and its two municipalities.
On the books since the late 1950s, the property tax is expected to raise $5.8 million next year for the upkeep of Ascension's east bank drainage system.
But Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert and Councilman Don Schexnaydre said parish officials have repeatedly told them the east bank parish drainage district that oversees the tax money doesn’t pay for work on roadside ditches in the town, even though Sorrento residents pay the maintenance millage and the drainage district does do road ditch work in unincorporated Ascension.
Instead, the parish has wanted the town of 1,640 people to pay to maintain Sorrento roadside ditches with its own $1 million annual budget, which is financed with separate town taxes, instead of tapping the drainage district's $20 million annual budget.
“I mean, come on, man! That’s double taxation,” Schexnaydre said Thursday.
He said the town's ditches are showing the neglect.
Sorrento town officials’ questioning of the parish policy could have implications in Gonzales, where residents also pay the 5-mill property tax and a half-cent drainage sales tax also paid in Sorrento, and possibly even in Donaldsonville, where residents pay separate property taxes to a different west bank parish drainage district.
Both drainage districts are overseen by the Parish Council members.
On Tuesday, Sorrento's Schexnaydre led a presentation about his concerns before the Town Council, pointing out an instance where parish ditch maintenance stopped at the “Welcome to Sorrento” sign marking the town’s corporate limits.
In an interview Thursday, Lambert, who is in his second term, said he found an instance that happened before he became mayor where the town paid the parish drainage district with a $21,000 state grant to do road ditch work in Sorrento.
At Schexnaydre’s urging, the council agreed Tuesday night to seek an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office or pursue other means to determine the legality of the parish’s position on ditch maintenance in the town, including possibly seeking clarification from a judge, according to a meeting audio recording.
Town Attorney Matthew Percy said Thursday he was still researching the issue to determine the town’s best path, including trying to work directly with the parish.
“If we could work out something with the parish and avoid all of it, we’re open to that, of course,” Percy said.
For years, parish officials have maintained a rough division of labor for east bank drainage dollars.
The 5-mill property tax is used for maintenance of the drainage system and operation of its pump stations, while the half-cent sales tax, which generates about $15 million per year, is used for capital projects.
Before the Nov. 6 renewal election for the 5-mill property tax, parish officials emphasized that the millage finances drainage maintenance across the parish, including for roadside ditches. But the presentation specified that the road ditch work is on 662 miles of state and parish roads.
In statement Thursday, parish officials said the eastern Ascension drainage district focuses on regional improvements, financing and operating pump stations that protect Sorrento and clearing out major bayous, canals and off-road ditches that drain the town.