Ascension council approves tax p.r. expense, amid debate

A $190,000 public outreach plan for a proposed 10-year, 5-mill property tax for recreation sparked debate Thursday among members of the Ascension Parish Council over the price tag.

The council voted 7-1 on Thursday to have Parish President Tommy Martinez negotiate a contract with Baton Rouge public relations firm Otey White and Associates to inform the public about the proposal, which will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Councilman Todd Lambert voted against the measure, citing a more urgent need to use the funds to address road issues.

“Until you address the road infrastructure here, you can’t get to the parks,” Lambert said.

Councilmen Daniel “Doc” Satterlee and Bryan Melancon, who have both spoken out against the proposed recreation tax, were absent from the meeting.

Over the 10-year period, the proposed tax is expected to generate about $58 million for renovating parish parks and creating new recreation spaces.

Of that total, $8.6 million would go to create the Ascension Recreation Center, which would be located on 150 acres of largely undeveloped land at the parish-owned Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales.

A planned $8.82 million would be used to upgrade 16 parks throughout the parish, including $2.8 million for the South Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Donaldsonville and to create four new parks. Plans also include $7.1 million for a new 780-seat performing arts center. The site for that facility is still under consideration.

Barbara Carey with The Communication Institute, the Baton Rouge firm working with Otey White and Associates on the proposal, said the $190,000 is needed to better inform the public about the proposition.

She noted that the firms will not advocate how residents should vote on the tax. Under state law, public funds cannot be used to urge residents to vote for or against candidates or ballot propositions, but public money can be used for the “dissemination of factual information relative to a proposition” on the ballot.

Carey pointed out that the public needs to be aware the proposed tax is dedicated solely to recreation programs, of the impact the plan will have on their communities, of the comprehensive scope of the plan and how much it would cost the average homeowner each year.

To do this, she said, communication through numerous avenues is necessary.

“In the 21st century, when you want to inform citizens about a project as important as recreation, you have to use the entire platform of communication,” she said. “People want personalized information. This plan that we gave you does that. It gives people the facts to help them make a decision.”

Lambert said $190,000 is too much to spend on public outreach. He called the move a gamble and said he felt it was “wasteful spending.” He suggested utilizing the parish’s cable access channel to educate the public at a lesser cost.

Lambert added that he disagreed with the matter not going through the parish’s Recreation Committee first, as well as the choice to fund the outreach efforts from the parish’s 1-cent sales tax revenues instead of the parish’s recreation budget.

“Much of that money (from the 1-cent sales tax) goes to fund road projects,” Lambert said. “The recreation fund is bottomed out. We need to live within our means.”

While roads are a major need in the parish, Carey said, she has heard from residents that recreation is an important aspect as well.

Carey noted that the proposed tax would cost the average homeowner between $3.13 and $5.21 per month, based on the home’s assessed value.

Lambert, who works at Westlake Chemical, said local businesses would feel the impact of the millage more directly than homeowners who can claim homestead exemption. He also said the parish’s chemical corridor already carries a heavy burden in paying nearly 60 percent of property tax revenues in the parish.

If the current plan is adopted, he said, parish petrochemical plants would pay between $200,000 and $460,000 a year more in property taxes.

Councilman Travis Turner, who chairs the council’s recreation committee, said the $190,000 would be “a drop in the bucket” compared to the money the parish could generate by enhancing recreation.

“It’s an investment in getting this knowledge to the public so they can’t say they didn’t know what’s going on,” Turner said.

Turner also said chemical plants can afford to contribute to parish recreation, especially with the constant risk of chemical releases into the environment. “We’re giving these chemical plants tax breaks every time they come in,” he said. “What’s wrong with asking them to pay a little money to help the youth in this parish?”

Carey said every community in the parish is included in the plan, to which Lambert said residents of Gonzales have expressed concerns.

“They have a recreation plan that they already spend money on and it’s a good program,” Lambert said.

When Carey cited planned upgrades to Stevens Park, located on Cannon Road, and Duplessis Park on La. 621, Lambert countered by noting those parks are not in the Gonzales city limits. He added that, under the proposed tax, Gonzales businesses would be paying for city-operated recreation as well as parishwide recreation.

Turner, however, said people from outside of Gonzales frequent Jambalaya Park, and Gonzales residents often use parish recreation facilities.

Councilwoman Teri Casso said she believes the parish can focus on both roads and recreation at the same time.

“This parish is capable of patting its head and rubbing its tummy at the same time,” she said. “We can get more done than just one thing at a time.

“On two occasions in the recent past, we failed to educate the public when we put initiatives on the ballot. I think we do so again at our own peril.”