GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council quietly re-voted Thursday on two of four industrial projects recommended for major property tax exemptions that drew criticism this fall and a lawsuit over public notice procedures, including over the hidden identity of the companies receiving the lucrative exemptions.
The council voted to recommend exemptions for the $167 million Project Sunflower and $156 million Project Bagel and to identify the companies behind Sunflower as BASF and Praxair and the company behind Bagel also as BASF.
The votes, each 9-0, happened with little explanation or discussion, but Parish Council and parish economic development officials said later the votes help ensure those projects could not be delayed by an potential adverse outcome in court that could require the parish to re-vote on the projects.
Councilman Benny Johnson recused himself from the votes. Councilman Travis Turner was absent.
Three parish residents who are part of Together Ascension, a subset of Together Louisiana, sued parish government Oct. 13 over the first council votes Sept. 21 and an earlier committee vote. The suit cites the hidden company identities and other alleged shortfalls in the meeting agendas.
Judge Tess Stromberg of the 23rd Judicial District Court has set a hearing on the matter 1 p.m. Wednesday.
In September, Project Sunflower-Sunflower Seed, Project Bagel, Project Zinnia and Project Magnolia were recommended by the council for up to 8-year exemptions on the local property taxes. The first five years would be at 100 percent of the project value and while the remaining three would be at 80 percent.
Together Louisiana claims exemptions for all the projects would cost parish taxpayers $55.6 million over eight years if eventually approved by the state. Other estimates are lower, however, and the property tax figures don't account for an expected boost in sales taxes that would come with construction and operations.
The council, as well as the School Board and sheriff, was acting under a new procedure called for by Gov. John Bel Edwards in a 2016 executive order. He asked local taxing bodies to weigh in on property tax exemptions before the state would consider them.
But the first major round of votes in Ascension, unlike in St. James, East Baton Rouge and Rapides parishes, resulted in elected officials' voting on projects for which the companies receiving the tax benefit remained secret.
Ascension's economic development corporation kept the company identities protected with code names, citing competitive concerns, but members of Together Louisiana, which pressed Edwards for the procedural change in the first place, argued the code names violated the transparency intended in the order.
Some Parish Council members and several School Board members have said they did not know the identities of the companies when they first voted on the tax exemptions.
Public records requests The Advocate filed with parish government and the School Board have not produced indications either entity received documents or emails indicating the identities of the companies, though school officials have said they are still researching some emails.
After the council vote Thursday, Dwight Poirrier, a lawyer and chairman of the board for the Ascension Economic Development Corporation, which vets incentive offers, said both projects Sunflower and Bagel have already become public and are going before the state Board of Commerce and Industry.
The council meeting provided an opportunity to identify those projects and cure any potential problem the court may end up finding and, thereby, avoiding any delay for the projects, he said.
Two other code-named projects, Zinnia and Magnolia, were not identified or voted on Thursday because, Poirrier said, those projects are still working through the process and had not yet been identified already.
Documents the state Department of Economic Development provided last month in response to a public records request identify Project Zinnia as a $25 million Praxair project and Project Magnolia as a $145 million Air Products and Chemicals facility.
In court papers, parish government has maintained the original votes were proper.
Council Chairman Bill Dawson said later that the re-votes Thursday are not a sign the parish changed its view on the original votes but is only ensuring the projects could not be delayed later.