St. Landry roadways neglected, need attention, supporters say
“There’s no perfect (priority) list. I would say a dead-end road with one or two people living there would have a lower priority than a paved or even one that is gravel, if those roads have connectivity to larger roads or there is a potential for development near them.” Bill FONTENOT, St. Landry Parish president
OPELOUSAS — After 38 years as a highway engineer with the state Department of Transportation, Bill Fontenot said he knows a bad road when he sees one.
Now as St. Landry Parish president, Fontenot says the parish has more deteriorating roads and potholes than his road maintenance crews can possibly afford to fix.
St. Landry is primarily an agricultural parish with more than 800 miles of roads, according to Fontenot’s estimates.
Most of those roads have had little attention over the past several decades, and many have become almost impassable, even though they are hard surfaced, Fontenot said.
“You can take a map of St. Landry Parish, throw a dart and anywhere that dart lands there will be a road that is in poor condition.
“Right now this parish does not have a road program. There has never been one in the history of this parish. All we are doing now is fixing potholes and making bumps,” Fontenot said.
The solution for the problem, Fontenot said, is an Oct. 19 two-cent sales tax proposal for voters living in the unincorporated areas of the parish.
The proposition, called “The Smooth Ride Home,” was endorsed last week by the St. Landry Parish School Board and has received the approval of the Greater Opelousas and Eunice chambers of commerce and the St. Landry Economic and Industrial Development District, said Fontenot.
“If we don’t pass this tax, then we are stuck with what we have,” Fontenot said.
During the past several months, Fontenot canvassed the parish, speaking at town hall meetings and gatherings in the 13 parish council election districts, explaining details of the proposition to voters.
If passed, Fontenot said, the proposed sales tax will generate an estimated $7 million annually over a period of 15 years. That’s enough to repair and overlay every parish road, regardless of whether the road is now gravel or hard surfaced, Fontenot has said.
Asking voters to increase a rural sales tax to 9.55 cents is a bold initiative, especially in St. Landry where an intricate system of taxing districts funded by property millages are intertwined with election districts, Fontenot said.
Similar parishwide propositions that failed as recently as five years ago asked voters to approve 10-year property millages that would eliminate the taxing districts and place the money in a single parishwide road fund.
The parish receives about $975,000 annually from the State Transportation Fund to maintain parish roads and another $1.1 million from a share of slot machine revenues at the Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino in Opelousas.
That amount is in addition to what is collected in the taxing districts supported by the property millages. The millage collections in the taxing districts, however, can be spent only within the district in which the revenue is collected.
Earlier this year the parish council voted 12-0 with an abstention by Ronald Buschel, to support the Smooth Ride Home initiative.
Despite the favorable reception by some public bodies, St. Landry Parish Clerk of Court Charles Jagneaux recently said he thinks Fontenot’s plan needs to be revised.
Speaking at the Opelousas Rotary Club a week ago, Jagneaux said the taxing districts already collect more than $4 million annually road maintenance issues.
“You’re already collecting the money. That’s my position. What gets me is we are already shelling out the $4 million in a parish that has people who are already poor,” Jagneaux said.
“Then you’re putting a sales tax on them? How do we get ahead?
“In this case (a sales tax) is hurting businesses who want to expand. A person can add another $2,000, if he wants, to the cost of building a $100,000 house,” Jagneaux said.
Jagneaux said he is not against finding revenue to fix parish roads.
“I think we should wait until the April 5 ballot so the council can discuss more thoroughly what could be done with the road districts that already collect money. This is not the end of the road,” Jagneaux said.
“If a proposition passes on April 5, there is still enough time to start road work by 2014,” Jagneaux added.
School Board members who spoke at Thursday’s meeting said they are in favor of road improvement due to safety concerns for bus drivers and the students who travel over them daily.
Interim board member Donnie Perron said improved roads will save the school system money “due to wear and tear on buses and the safety of the (school) system.”
Board member Candace Gerace asked Fontenot how parish government will decide which roads should be fixed first if the proposition passes.
Fontenot said he expects to spend about $2 million annually for road improvements, but he and the council have not yet created a priority list for maintenance and construction.
“There’s no perfect (priority) list. I would say a dead-end road with one or two people living there would have a lower priority than a paved or even one that is gravel, if those roads have connectivity to larger roads or there is a potential for development near them,” Fontenot told Gerace.
Fontenot said one of the goals is to pave every parish road in St. Landry before the sales tax comes up for renewal.
Parish council member Wayne Ardoin, whose election district includes a property millage designated for road maintenance, said he’s hearing “mixed signals” about passage of the tax.
“Tax is not a popular subject these days, and those I’ve talked to who are against it, say they just don’t want another tax. Then there are those that are for it, because they believe this is the best way to fix roads,” Ardoin said.