Superintendent visits Livingston schools on first day _lowres (copy)

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- Students board a Livingston Parish school bus for the first day of school in August 2015.

LIVINGSTON — The Livingston Parish School Board on Thursday approved a property tax exemption worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that developers said would be necessary to build an $8.6 million solar field near Springfield.

Board members seemed to hold some skepticism toward the industrial tax exemption, but they ultimately approved the favorable resolution with a unanimous vote.

The South Alexander Development I is a utility-scale solar energy farm that would be constructed on 65 acres of timberland off George White Road in the southeastern part of the parish. 

The project, which is being developed by New Orleans-based Joule Energy, is projected to create 150 construction jobs and one permanent job with an annual salary of $25,000, according to an application submitted to Louisiana Economic Development. The facility is expected to operate for 40 years on the site.

The project got a thumbs up from the state Board of Commerce and Industry in October. But, under new state rules, the sheriff, parish council and school board need to sign off, in order for the company to get a tax break from the millage that each agency collects. 

If all three agencies approve the Industrial Tax Exemption Program application, the company would be exempted from 80 percent of the property taxes it would otherwise need to pay over a 10-year period, which totals about $600,000, according to figures calculated by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

BRAC's figures estimate that the company would still pay $155,000 in property tax and $244,000 in sales and use tax over that 10-year period.

During the meeting, some board members posed questions to the company about why only a single job would be created, how other entities voted on the project and how the exemption would affect the property's assessment should it not come to fruition.

A consultant for the company pitched the project to board members as a way for them to make money from timberland that is otherwise generating little revenue.

"That is money that comes to the parish if the project happens. If the project does not happen, that is money that does not come to the parish," said Jimmy Leonard of Advantous Consulting.

Leonard said that without the exemption, the project is in "serious jeopardy of not happening."

School Superintendent Rick Wentzel seemed to share in Leonard's reasoning when board member Sid Kinchen sought his opinion.

"From my perspective, we're not getting anything now," Wentzel said, adding that Livingston Parish ranks low statewide in terms of funding. "We just need to continue to look for places we can get revenue."

The Parish Council approved the exemption by default when it did not take action within 30 days of receiving notice, said David Bennett, CEO of Livingston Economic Development.

Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard submitted a letter opposing the exemption, Bennett said, but the developers are trying to meet with the sheriff to change his mind. Earlier in the day, Lori Steele, a spokeswoman for Ard, said he is in discussion with LEDC.

Also Thursday night, the School Board approved an agreement with the parish assessor to audit homestead exemptions given in the parish.

Parish Assessor Jeff Taylor is planning to contract with Covington-based Assessure Systems to search for people improperly claiming dual homesteads. Taylor has estimated the audit could result in up to $1 million in extra property tax revenue each year.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.