La. high court upholds ruling on taxes for Comite River Diversion Canal

The Louisiana Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling that property taxes funding the Comite River Diversion Canal project be sent to the district that oversees the project instead of being held in escrow. The high court made its decision even as a lawsuit challenging the tax collection is still playing out in court.

Terry Campbell, a property owner in Central, filed a lawsuit in the 19th Judicial District in November 2010 claiming the Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District, which covers parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes, improperly continued to collect money from a 3-mill property tax passed in July 2000 to fund the project. The lawsuit eventually grew to class-action status.

Campbell’s lawsuit alleges the tax resolution authorized the district to collect no more than $6 million from the tax but that the district kept collecting money after reaching that goal.

Chris Whittington, one of the attorneys representing the class-action plaintiffs, has said the figure had climbed to about $13 million as of early 2013.

The executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, Dietmar Rietschier, testified in 2012 the $6 million figure was the original estimate for the 10-year duration of the tax, which he said was extended another 10 years in 2010 at 2.65 mills.

Rietschier and Whittington could not be reached for comment Monday.

Sid Gautreaux and Jason Ard, the sheriffs in East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes respectively, said in court records they were still collecting the tax funds because no ruling had been made yet on the legality of the collection.

Campbell and other residents continued to pay the tax out of an abundance of caution as the case played out, court records show.

The sheriffs filed at least 25 motions asking for permission to keep the funds in court registries, instead of depositing them in the Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District’s coffers, until a ruling was made.

Judge Wilson Fields, of the 19th Judicial District, gave Gautreaux and Ard permission to deposit the funds in court registries in at least six instances, court records show.

The Amite River Basin district appealed Fields’ ruling in an attempt to gain control of the funds.

The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in December vacated Fields’ ruling, ordering the funds be sent to the district.

The Louisiana Supreme Court announced Thursday it refused to hear the appeal, effectively upholding the appellate court ruling.

The Comite River Diversion Canal project will lower flooding risks in the Comite River Basin by diverting floodwater from the Amite and Comite rivers to the Mississippi River.

The Comite River Basin covers portions of East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension and East Feliciana parishes as well as Wilkinson and Amite counties in Mississippi.

The project had been discussed for decades after a disastrous flood in 1983 but gained some traction in 2000 after the tax proposal passed.

However, construction on the $188 million project has been delayed for years because of legal and financial issues.