Ascension Council mulling recreation, road taxes

Beset with increasing demands for infrastructure and services from a growing and youthful populace, Ascension Parish leaders are mulling new tax proposals for roads and recreation after voters in the past year and a half rejected measures aimed at growth-related demands.

A 5-mill property tax for a broad, parish-wide recreation plan received a key nod Tuesday evening from the Parish Council Recreation Committee after parish officials had several months of public input and a citizens committee of 32 people that refined a draft plan.

The plan calls for $30 million in upgrades to neighborhood parks and to build a new recreational complex at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center. The proposed tax would also provide funding for park maintenance.

Several citizen committee members pitched the plan as a central element in serving a growing parish with many young families who have moved to Ascension for its schools.

“Whether it’s at a larger facility or the neighborhood parks, they (families) want to be there and be there with everybody, and this is how you build a community,” said Aaron Lawler, 38, of Prairieville.

The Recreation Committee’s split 3-2 vote puts the millage tax on a path for a full-council vote in mid-June so it could be on the Nov. 4 ballot.

During a different committee meeting Tuesday, Councilman Todd Lambert proposed taking a second look at a half-cent sales tax for roads.

The longtime councilman and fiscal conservative, who often raises a skeptical eye to new tax and spending proposals, said recently existing funding sources are “nowhere close enough to keep up” with the demands for road repairs.

“I’ve got people calling me every day needing road repairs,” he said.

The surprising shift from Lambert, critical of a November 2012 parish road sale tax plan because he said it did not put enough toward maintenance of parish roads and spent too much on state highways, comes as parish officials are discussing road and other impact fees. Officials have committed a sizeable piece of the parish general fund to a new sewer system and are looking at making new subdivisions take care of their own roads through special taxing districts.

Lambert said a new road tax would raise $10 million to $11 million per year and would go toward parish roads only, as he envisions it.

He said he does not want to see parish funding go toward state highways, as anticipated in the earlier half-cent road plan that voters rejected handily in November 2012.

Lambert on Tuesday lobbied the Transportation Committee, on which he serves, to send the proposed sales tax to the full council so it too could be on the November ballot.

While several council members and Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez expressed support for the concept of a road sales tax, the committee decided to keep the issue, which has no specific road plan attached with it, at the committee level for discussion.

Councilman Chairman Chris Loar, a backer of the recreation tax who was present for the transportation meeting, said in a break between the two committee meetings that he would oppose putting a sales tax without a road plan on the November ballot.

“We need a ‘Here’s what we’re going to do with the roads,’ just like we’re presenting here (with recreation),” Loar said, as he held the recreation plan detailing the costs of various planned improvements. “Here’s every dollar, how we’re going to spend it. It’s an actual plan.”

Lambert and Councilman Bryan Melancon, who both serve on the Recreation Committee, opposed the 5-mill tax for recreation.

Lambert, who said he supports recreation programs, explained that Ascension Parish is decades behind on roads, sewer, recreation and other services and said he is worried about hitting voters all at once.

“I don’t know, guys. I just, I think we’re pushing the gun here a little quick,” he said.

Despite Lambert’s reservations, Councilmen Oliver Joseph, Travis Turner and Dempsey Lambert agreed to send the tax measure to the full council, overcoming Todd Lambert’s and Melancon’s objections.