Ascension officials scouring for road work funds

Ascension Parish government officials are considering alternative methods of paying for roadwork nearly 1½ years after voters rejected a parishwide half-cent sales tax for the Lanes for Change program.

Voters turned down the 25-year, $150 million road plan 57 percent to 43 percent on Nov. 6, 2012.

Administration officials and some council supporters have made the case in the past few weeks that they heard voters loud and clear, but the gap in financing road maintenance grows as Ascension is poised for another wave of plant-driven residential development.

Funding proposals include creating mini taxing districts in new subdivisions. The taxes would be paid only by the new subdivision’s residents. All of the money raised within the district would be used exclusively on the subdivision’s roads.

After several delays, the council also recently appointed a citizens committee to look at road impact fees for improvements outside new developments.

In addition, the administration is revisiting a state Department of Transportation and Development program that provides state money immediately to local governments willing to assume long-term maintenance of state highways inside the parish’s boundaries.

But some are skeptical about the need for such methods of financing.

Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee said he believes there is funding to be had with tighter budgeting and the sale of parish assets.

Sell Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, which once was valued at $54 million; spend a $5 million windfall from the closure of the old East Ascension Hospital on roads, not on a new parish complex; stop bailing out the Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship and other festivals; and stop pressing a proposed $25 million recreation plan until other needs are met first, Satterlee said.

“I’d like to see the (recreation plan), but it is always a matter of priorities. What should you be doing first?” said Satterlee, who said he still wants to look at the language on the subdivision taxing district plan.

Parish government is responsible for 500 miles of parish roads that cost $9.2 million a year to keep in “acceptable” condition, according to new figures generated by Ascension road officials.

But parish government generates $6.2 million a year in dedicated sales tax revenue for roads, while the number of miles of parish roads increases annually by 1.5 percent.

The yearly growth in the size of the road grid comes not from new parish road construction, but from residential developments. Every time the Parish Council accepts a new subdivision, by law, it agrees to maintain the new roads in perpetuity.

“It’s just a matter of time. It’s a time bomb. It’s ticking. You’re $3 million a year in the hole, and probably a few years ago, you were $1.5 million (in the hole), but if you keep taking roads, you’re never going to get ahead because it costs more to do roads now,” Parish President Tommy Martinez recently told the council.

“And we’re taking in more and more and more roads, so like I said, if anybody’s got a solution, I think they need to come up with it,” he added.

Parish government has supplemented its road fund with surplus from its 1-cent sales tax, the primary funding source for all parish government. Surplus from fiscal year 2013, which ended in December, will kick in $2.5 million to the road fund.

That arrangement ends in fiscal year 2014, when all of the 1-cent sales tax surplus is dedicated to sewer and other east bank parish utility costs. In September, the council effectively dedicated up to $3.3 million a year for 20 years in future surplus to pay off a $60 million loan from the state Department of Environmental Quality to start a parish sewer system.

A split council approved a resolution Thursday supporting legislation that would give the parish government authority to pursue the mini taxing districts.

Senate Bill 278, by Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, would allow private developers and landowners to ask the council to create special taxing districts for their new subdivisions. The Parish Council could levy up to 15 mills and special assessments on the district to pay for maintenance of roads in that subdivision only.

If the bill is adopted, the council would have to adopt an ordinance to enact the plan. The plan would probably need to come in concert with an end to the parish practice of taking in new public roads. In that scenario, the only other alternative for developers would be private roads funded directly by homeowners associations.

The council’s backing of the resolution came with some dissent. Critics questioned whether the council and administration are truly listening to what voters said when they rejected the road tax in late 2012 and a millage and parcel fees for firefighters last year.

Clint Cointment, a Gonzales-area surveyor who is considering running for parish president in 2015, said the measure seemed an end run around the voters’ will and indicative of a disconnect between the parish and the public.

“After failure of a half-cent road tax, failed fire tax, lack of support for a sewer tax, lingering impact fees and a proposed recreation tax to be put on the ballot, I am not going to stand here and accuse this administration or members of this council of trying to pull a fast one on the people of Ascension Parish,” Cointment said. “But I will tell you, it just looks bad.”

Though the critics are outspoken, the council majority stands more closely to Martinez, and so the public, it appears, will be hearing more about the taxing districts and other alternatives.

Amedee disputed on Friday discussion that he would require a unanimous council vote on his taxing district bill.

“I never ever expected that. There’s no such thing as ‘unanimous’ in politics,” he said. “I’m satisfied with it. I am going to move forward.”