Special taxing district bill for Ascension awaits governor’s signature

A bill allowing Ascension Parish government to create special taxing districts to build and maintain roads, bridges and culverts inside newly built subdivisions passed the Senate on Thursday with a key House amendment requiring voter approval.

The bill, Senate Bill 617, is now awaiting Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature.

The districts, which could levy up to 15 mills in property taxes and special assessments on homeowners, are one of several funding methods parish officials have floated to tackle fast-growing Ascension’s infrastructure backlog.

While SB617 drew no opposition in the House or Senate, an early version of the legislation — which was withdrawn and refiled as SB617 — stirred concerns for some residents and Parish Council members in March over language they worried would give the council broader taxing power than backers claimed.

Stat Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, who authored SB617 and the earlier bill, Senate Bill 278, at the behest of parish officials, said he tried to address concerns with the modified bill and later amendments.

“We worked real hard to make all sides happy,” Amedee said.

The Senate, which approved an early version of SB617 on April 9, concurred with the House-amended version Thursday, 35-0. The House backed the amended bill 94-0 Wednesday.

Amedee said a House amendment requiring that any taxes and fees get voter approval before they are levied eased major concerns. Amedee said the amendment, which he said he wanted but had a hard time wording, was written with help from the Governor’s Office.

The amendment does not require voter approval if no one lives in a district, however. The language says that “if there are no qualified electors in the district as certified by the registrar of voters, no such election shall be required.”

“I mean if there is nobody there, there is no way to have a vote,” Amedee said.

As parish officials have envisioned the taxing districts, landowners or developers would seek council backing before they build.

The districts emerged after voters rejected a half-cent road sales tax in late 2012. Parish President Tommy Martinez has proposed stopping the acceptance of new subdivision roads into the parish maintenance system, arguing the parish does not have the money.

That would mean those roads would be private. Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton told the Planning Commission last week that the tax districts would be an option for developers to keep roads public but funded with new, dedicated revenues.

The districts would be overseen by the Parish Council but would require two public hearings before any individual district would be created.

Like Amedee, Martinez said he did not expect opposition from Jindal. He said the districts would provide the parish another tool but also said it would still be a while before districts would be created and roads would cease to be taken in by the parish.

Martinez said the parish must do an analysis of parish roads and would still need to adopt an ordinance to create the new district process.

“That was just one step,” he said of the bill. “There’s a long way to go and I’m sure a lot of debate.”

Councilman Bryan Melancon, who opposed the early version of the legislation the council supported March 20, said new language addressing his and others’ concerns narrowed the bill’s scope.

“I think that way it ended up being passed, it won’t be used very much,” Melancon said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.