GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council voted without opposition Thursday to put a proposed half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The council rejected a separate move before the final vote to set aside part of any new revenue for road maintenance.
The half-cent tax would be a critical part of a parish plan — to cost $135 million in its first phase — primarily to improve intersections across the parish to improve traffic flow.
The proposed tax would last 25 years, boost the sales tax rate in unincorporated Ascension from 8.5 percent to 9 percent and begin collection on Jan. 1 if voters approve proposition, according to the plan.
The new tax would generate $8 million a year and fund up to $80 million in bond issues, likely two $40 million, 20-year issues, parish officials have said.
Councilman Kent Schexnaydre spoke for most council members and the administration by saying that the plan, along with its sales tax component, is the most realistic way to go, based on money available, and that the plan has the potential to draw additional federal dollars to the parish.
“No one has the answers. I am convinced, however, this is the best-case scenario with the possible monies we have,” Schexnaydre said. The plan, he added, asks “the people of Ascension Parish to put up the least amount of money and most reasonable amount of money to achieve the best results we can for transportation in the parish.”
Council Chairman Chris Loar added later the sales tax would cost the average parish resident about 16 cents per day in increased sales taxes.
The decision to put the tax on the ballot consisted of votes by the council acting as two separate bodies Thursday: first as the board members of parish Sales Tax District No. 2 and then as members of the full council.
The District No. 2 vote went 8-1, with Councilman Bryan Melancon opposed and Council Chairman Chris Loar not voting. Councilman Oliver Joseph was absent.
The final vote included an amendment that eliminated proposed projects inside municipal limits, principally parts of Airline Highway in Gonzales, and inserted ballot language making the first phase of projects the priority with supplemental projects to follow if money is available.
Acting as the full council, members approved the measure without opposition. Joseph was absent. Loar does not vote unless to break a tie.
Melancon, who criticized the plan as lacking in detail, said he voted for the final resolution to allow the people to decide the issue for themselves.
Council members debated during the sales tax district session about whether money should be set aside for maintenance over the life of the tax and whether the plan had enough detail and certainty to deliver on its promises.
Another piece of the plan, though not part of what voters will consider, is a highway transfer program involving the parish and the state Department of Transportation and Development expected to generate $56 million in credits but add more than 100 miles of highway to the parish’s responsibility.
The council saw a presentation from Ben Laurie, chief engineer of the parish Engineering Department, about parish plans to improve its road maintenance program.
He said current overlay costs are $300,000 per mile. He said the parish has 492 miles of road, meaning it would take 28.4 years at current funding levels to resurface all the roads in the parish. He said most roads last 20 years.
Laurie said a pavement preservation program can save the parish 20 percent to 40 percent in its annual maintenance costs, in part, by doing a better job of upkeep on parish roads.
Councilmen Todd Lambert and Melancon advocated setting aside any increased sales tax revenue remaining after bond retirement payments — about $3 million a year — for road maintenance.
Lambert moved for using half of the so-called “pay as you go funds” for maintenance.
The council, sitting as the sales tax district, rejected the substitute motion, 3-6, with Councilmen Lambert, Melancon and Daniel Satterlee voting yes.
Councilman Benny Johnson said the council is planning to use some of the pay-as-you-go money for additional projects. The road plan has a supplemental list of projects amounting to $215 million or more.
“I can’t support that,” Johnson said.