OPELOUSAS — For the first time in parish history, there will be enough money to overlay all of St. Landry Parish’s roads after voters approved a 2 percent sales tax Saturday, Parish President Bill Fontenot said.
Calling the vote historic, Fontenot said the parish will have to determine which roads will receive the improvements first.
He made the comments Saturday during an election watch party at the Old City Market in Opelousas.
With 100 percent of the vote in, the complete but unofficial returns for the sales tax were 3,574 votes for the tax and 2,296 votes against it.
Fontenot estimated the tax will generate about $7.8 million annually over a 15-year period.
The next step, Fontenot said, is calling a special Parish Council meeting to begin the process of applying for $70 million in bonds.
“Then we will get started on a priority list to determine which roads have the most need in terms of connectivity as well as condition,” he said.
Fontenot did not say who will begin assembling the priority list or how long it will take, but the matter will need public hearings, council discussion and approval before it is put into effect, he said.
St. Landry, Fontenot has said, has about 800 miles of parish roads and all of them will receive maintenance and upgrades in some way from the sales tax revenue.
The key factor in determining construction and maintenance priorities will be how important the road is in terms of connecting it to existing major roads, and whether the road is important in terms of economics and residential use, Fontenot said.
“That could even mean a gravel road might get priority over one that is already paved,” he said.
Fontenot said he believes road work could start as early as the summer once the state Bond Commission approves the council’s bond request.
Bonding will allow the parish to begin borrowing the money, hiring engineers to perform assessments and begin work sooner, Fontenot said.
“Bonding the money will let us begin work a lot sooner than it would if we had to wait for the tax collections to build up to a point where we could afford to start,” Fontenot said.
Initial collections for the sales tax begin Jan. 1 and will increase the rate now paid in the rural areas from 7.55 percent to 9.55 percent.
In addition to the sales tax, Fontenot said the parish will receive about $800,000 this year from the state Transportation Fund, $1.6 million from a percentage of slot machine proceeds from the Evangeline Downs Race Track and Casino, and $500,000 from video poker proceeds for road work.
The parish also has eight taxing districts inside some of the 13 election districts, which generate a combined $4 million annually for maintenance and drainage work.
Voters turned down two parishwide tax millage propositions for road construction over the last 10 years, but Fontenot said he feels the electorate was ready for a change.
Fontenot said he was nervous throughout Saturday’s election.
“I had butterflies all week, just as I did before games when I was playing football,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. As it turns out, there was only one area of the parish that seemed against it.
Fontenot said he was pleased with the effort made to get the tax passed.
“I think we did a good job of presenting this to the people by going before them at 30 town-hall meetings and showing that the tax will be used for construction and maintenance only,” he said.
The unofficial returns indicate the proposition had heavy support in the Arnaudville, Leonville, Sunset and Cankton areas where 16 of 17 precincts approved the measure.
Opposition to the sales tax was heaviest in precincts surrounding Port Barre, Krotz Springs and Palmetto.
Council Chairman Leon Robinson said passage of the proposition represented “a wonderful thing. It’s going to allow us to start getting all the roads done as quickly as possible, maybe as soon as six months from now .”
Council member Timothy LeJeune said voters apparently realized the sales tax money is dedicated exclusively for roads.
“I think what also changed their minds in some districts is that not even the council can vote to change the result of the election once this tax was approved,” LeJeune said.