Jury’s quick verdict: Voters not overtaxed for Comite River Diversion Canal

A jury swiftly ended a more than three-year-long legal battle Wednesday by deciding that voters in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes were not overtaxed to fund the yet-to-be-completed Comite River Diversion Canal.

An East Baton Rouge Parish jury of eight women and four men, which began hearing testimony March 25, deliberated for only an hour before concluding by an 11-1 vote that the Amite River Basin District was not limited to collecting just $6 million in property taxes for the project.

A 2010 lawsuit, filed by Central property owner Terry Campbell, claimed the district was authorized to collect only $6 million through a 3-mill, 10-year property tax approved by voters in the three parishes in 2000.

The suit later obtained class-action status.

In 2010, voters in the three parishes approved a 10-year extension of the tax at 2.65 mills.

The suit threatened to force the Amite River Basin District to refund millions to dollars to taxpayers.

Larry Bankston, an attorney for the Amite River Basin District, said more than $20 million in local property taxes have been collected for the 12-mile project through the 2 millages.

Bankston said the quick jury verdict spoke loudly.

“The fact that the jury came back so quickly is a testament to the lack of evidence” presented by the plaintiffs, he said outside state District Judge Wilson Fields’ courtroom.

The plaintiffs’ position, Bankston said, “was never defensible.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys declined comment after the verdict.

The legal battle has delayed the distribution of tax money collected for the project, but Bankston said the release of the money should be forthcoming.

He also acknowledged that the litigation also slowed the project.

“We have spent an inordinate amount of time (on the lawsuit). We never lost focus, but this has been a distraction.”

Joel Porter, an attorney for the property owners, argued Wednesday to the jury that $6 million was the maximum amount of money the Amite River Basin District could collect from taxpayers through the 3-mill, 10-year property tax approved in 2000.

Porter alleged the Amite River district has collected $24.9 million to date and, thus, has “cheated” more than 100,000 taxpayers by collecting $18.9 million more than should have been collected. He urged that the money be refunded.

“Rather than coming to the taxpayers and saying, ‘Thank you for your contribution,’ they wanted more,” he said. “It’s the taxpayers’ money. Give it back to them.”

Bankston insisted the 2000 proposition did not put a limit on how much money could be collected from property owners. Nor did the 2010 proposition, he argued. Bankston said the only limitation in the 2000 proposition was 3 mills for 10 years.

Bankston noted that the 2000 proposition was not protested at the time. The lawsuit was filed in 2010.

The project has been delayed for years because of legal and financial issues, and Bankston blamed some of those delays on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the state budget crisis.

“Is it (construction of the project) going as fast as we want? No,” Bankston conceded to the jury in his closing argument. “We are trying to move this project faster. Yes, we are moving faster.”

The flood of 1983, which damaged more than 5,000 homes and businesses, led to the idea for the diversion canal.

The 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.

The project’s cost has ballooned from a 1999 estimate of $122 million to $199 million today.

The Amite River Basin District covers parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes.