Lawyer: ‘Enough is enough’ with Comite River Diversion taxes

Likening their class-action lawsuit to the Boston Tea Party protest against taxation without representation, an attorney for property owners fighting the Comite River Diversion Canal project’s funding told a jury Tuesday the residents were duped into paying millions more than they expected.

“The cry here is no taxation by misrepresentation. The taxpayers are saying we have paid what we agreed to pay. Enough is enough and no more,” attorney Joel Porter said passionately in his opening statement at the trial of a suit against the Amite River Basin District and others.

The district covers parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes.

The suit claims the Amite River Basin District improperly continued to collect money from a 3-mill property tax passed in July 2000 to fund the project. The suit alleges the tax resolution authorized the district to take in no more than $6 million from the tax, but at the time of the suit’s filing in November 2010, an additional $7.3 million had been collected.

Larry Bankston, an attorney for the district, told jurors the 2000 tax proposition placed no limitation on the amount of money that could be brought in by the millage over a 10-year period.

“Make them show you the public was hoodwinked, which is not the case,” Bankston said to the 13 East Baton Rouge Parish jurors who were seated earlier Tuesday.

The suit, filed by Central property owner Terry Campbell, seeks a refund of the taxes allegedly overcollected. Porter said the case involves more than 100,000 taxpayers.

Voters in 2010 approved a 10-year extension of the tax at 2.65 mills.

The 12-mile Comite River Diversion Canal project is expected to lower flooding risks in the Comite River Basin by diverting floodwater from the Amite and Comite rivers to the Mississippi River.

Bankston said the project, which was estimated in 1999 to cost $122 million, now is expected to cost $199 million by the time it is completed. He said $80 million has been spent so far.

If it is completed, Porter argued.

“At this rate, it will take 100 years, if then, to complete this project,” Porter said.

“It will be built,” Bankston assured the jury.

Bankston said a disastrous 1983 flood that destroyed 5,000 homes and businesses and caused damage totaling $175 million, or $400 million in today’s dollars, was the driving force behind the project. Porter noted there were at least four major floods along the Comite River from 1973 to 1983 that flooded homes in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes.

Porter argued that $6 million was to be generated by the 2000 tax as the local match for the canal being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The state also is sharing the costs of the project.

Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, testified at a pretrial hearing in February 2012 that the $6 million figure was the original estimate for the 10-year duration of the 3-mill tax approved by voters in 2000.

“That’s what George Bush called fuzzy math,” Porter told the jury in reference to Rietschier’s prior testimony.

The trial will continue Wednesday and is expected to take up to two weeks to complete.