It's been nearly 17 years since voters in parts of East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes agreed to shoulder a tax to help fund the yet-to-be built Comite River Diversion Canal that was meant to keep the river from spilling its banks and flooding their homes.
Now residents of those areas who feel they haven't gotten their money's worth are wondering if they can get a refund.
"People are just fed up. ... If they don't get started on this thing before long, we are going to demand our money back," Central Councilman Wayne Messina said.
The canal is supposed to redirect water from the Comite into the Mississippi during periods of high water. Because the August flood was so grave, it's unclear just how much the diversion would have helped last summer, though authorities have said it would have lessened flooding.
Since that flood, residents have expressed deep disappointment in the failure to build the canal and have begun to talk about taking action.
Like others interviewed for this story, Baker Mayor Darnell Waites hadn't heard of any specific plans, but he's sympathetic with people so tired of delays they want to consider signing a petition or filing a lawsuit.
"I've just made up my mind (the diversion canal) is not going to happen ... in my lifetime," the mayor said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks, who represents Baker, said the diversion canal millage may have escaped people's notice before but not since last summer's devastating flood.
State Rep. Valarie Hodges said she's heard of unhappiness with the project around Denham Springs, too. She's heard talk of potential petitions but isn't sure what exactly they might demand.
Dissatisfied taxpayers may simply encourage their neighbors to vote down the Amite River Basin Commission's tax when it goes up for renewal in 2020, she said. An ardent supporter of the project, Hodges said she's "confident" the canal eventually will be dug.
So far, $117 million has been spent on the canal to purchase land, perform studies and build a flood control structure at Lily Bayou. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $78 million of the total, with the state and the Basin Commission contributing a little less than $20 million each.
In 2010, a Central resident brought a class-action lawsuit against the Basin Commission for a tax refund. However in that suit, which was unsuccessful, the plaintiff argued that the commission collected more than they were entitled, not that the entire undertaking was a boondoggle.
Tuesday, the Basin Commission reauthorized the sheriffs in the three parishes to continue collecting their 2.41-mill property tax for another year.
By law, the Basin Commission has wide latitude to address drainage around Baton Rouge, according to commission attorney Larry Bankston. However, the tax that provides nearly all the commission's funding was written with a singular purpose — to dig the Comite River Diversion Canal.
"Our only function right now is to do the diversion canal, pretty much," Bankston said, despite the much broader power conferred upon the commission in the original statute that created it.
That power could include dredging waterways, improving existing canals or fixing the crumbled Amite River weir, a damlike structure in Livingston Parish. However, the money is dedicated and can only be spent on the canal.
Commission leaders have even discussed taking on a new role in floodplain management.
As talk swirls of a state attempt to create a sophisticated model of the river basin, the commission is making a case that they should be given authority to use the model to oversee development and land use in the region.
Local, state and federal leaders have remarked on multiple occasions in the past that a lack of complete funding from the Corps has caused the greatest delay in getting the diversion canal built. The project needs support from the Corp because they, by agreement, are to provide the largest share of the funding.
In the past, legislators could earmark funds to support their pet projects, but congressional reforms have ended the practice. Now, projects must survive on merit. The Corps has contended the canal does not offer the best return on investment compared to other infrastructure projects around the country vying for federal dollars.
While the diversion canal is expected to have a large impact in areas around Central and Baker if it's built, the effect in south Baton Rouge, Ascension Parish and lower Livingston Parish would be less.
After so many years without Corps support, state and local leaders are looking for another way forward. But it's a big ask — the Corps is still responsible for about $125 million in funds to build the canal, according to a recent audit.
With faith in the Corps dwindling, officials are looking to the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development or Homeland Security to reach in and pull the project back into the light. To complicate matters, the project can only have one federal sponsor, so those agencies couldn't split the cost to build the canal.
Some have wondered if the state could move forward without the Corps, but the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has indicated that the state can't shoulder the cost on its own.
DOTD is already a partner on the diversion and would be responsible for $87 million to finish its share as things stand now. It is waiting for the money to come down from Washington.
"This has been a federal project and funding it is (the Corps') committed responsibility. ... DOTD does not have the resources to build or maintain a built diversion canal," department spokesman Rodney Mallett wrote in an email.
Basin Commission Executive Director Dietmar Rietschier said he hasn't had discussions with any stakeholders about any scenarios that don't involve federal funding of some sort. The plan has always been to use Corps money, but now Louisiana officials are looking to see if HUD or Homeland Security could come to the rescue.
If the federal government continues not to fund the project, and the state is unwilling to take it over, could the Basin Commission's tax be put to some other use?
That's hard to answer, Bankston said.
The Basin Commission has banked a little over $13 million dedicated to the canal. They're waiting for the Corps to put up some money so they can move forward with actually digging.
Perhaps the commission could ask the district court for a declaratory judgment allowing the funds to be used for other drainage projects, Bankston suggested. But, he said, that would be tricky.
Residents voted for a tax proposition that says the money is to be spent "for the purpose of providing revenues to carry out the District's local share of the Comite Diversion Canal Project."
"How do you undo something that's so restrictive?" Bankston asked.
Even if voters defund the millage when it goes up for renewal in 2020, the money that's already been collected is still dedicated to the canal.
The specific dedication probably helped garner support for the tax in 2000 and 2010 when it went to voters, who were able to see that their money was being dedicated to a particular cause they supported, Bankston said. But now, their hands are left tied.
The Corps never outright kills projects, so the diversion canal could keep getting encouraging little dribs and drabs forever without ever winning sufficient support, Bankston said.
"I'm very concerned the Corps is playing us."