Ascension officials eye park and recreation upgrades

Ascension Parish officials say they will unveil a plan later this week to spend $20 million to $25 million upgrading recreational facilities on the parish’s fast-growing east bank.

Projects under consideration include renovations to existing playgrounds and ball fields, adding new splash pads and walking and jogging trails and possibly even construction of a major recreational complex on a vacant land at Lamar-Dixon.

The complex could include a natatorium, baseball and soccer fields and an outdoor amphitheater, parish officials have said.

Councilman Chris Loar, an ardent supporter of improving recreational facilities in Ascension, had proposed tapping an existing East Ascension drainage tax to pay for the projects.

Loar suggested using three mills of the 5-mill drainage tax to pay for such recreational improvements.

Parish officials have said the drainage district has a $32 million surplus and could withstand the loss of 60 percent of its future property tax revenue and still maintain a healthy savings through 2030.

The projection, which does not count on the Shell gas-to-liquids plant that was canceled Thursday, calls on tapping some of that drainage surplus between 2017 to 2024 to cover annual drainage expenses. The surplus would drop to $23 million until revenue recovers from the loss of the three mills and begin adding to the surplus again.

The East Ascension drainage fund also is supported by a half-cent sales tax that, like the drainage property tax, is collected across the east bank, including in Sorrento and Gonzales.

Some Parish Council members have been skeptical of rededicating drainage tax money, saying they were concerned about shifting around taxes voters have already adopted for different uses.

Others worried that the rosy revenue projections for the drainage fund might be overly optimistic, which could leave the parish short of money needed for drainage projects in the future.

Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee said his constituents are opposed to the proposed rededication, pointing to what they say are more important infrastructure needs like roads and sewer.

He said he’d much rather have sewers working correctly and roads safe and up to standard than he would see the money used to “build some more things out at Lamar-Dixon.”

Councilman Todd Lambert said, “the public is telling me they don’t want to touch drainage money.”

He also pointed out that the district is responsible for bridges over canals and several will be coming up for repair or replacement. The flush years in Ascension due to industrial growth will end, he said.

“That can’t last forever. You know how that is. Yeah, we’re on an all-time high right now for the last several years because of the petrochemical plants,” Lambert said. “Then, boom, it’s going to take a dip. You can’t count on that forever.”

On Friday, a day after Shell announced it would not build the $20 billion plant in Ascension, Loar pulled back from the idea of pushing to have an item on the May 3 ballot to use a portion of the East Ascension drainage tax for recreational improvements.

He said he wants to leave funding for recreation open at this point, raising the possibility of extending the recreation plan to the west bank and funding it with a new parishwide tax.

“Does it makes sense to do this as a rededication or do it as separate 3-mill tax?” Loar asked.

Talk of a new recreation tax is a shift from Loar’s original concept, which had the selling point of not raising a new tax.

Since 2008, Ascension voters have had a mixed record on approving tax measures on the ballot.

Voters soundly rejected attempts to pass new parishwide taxes for roads and the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center. On more geographically narrow proposals, voters approved a new firefighting millage in Prairieville. Elsewhere in the parish they rejected new firefighting fees and a millage for a district that includes St. Amant, Galvez and Sorrento.

In the same period, parish voters have renewed 14 existing parish taxes, including the East Ascension drainage millage on Oct. 4, 2008.

Loar said he wants to let the larger community come to a conclusion on how to proceed with funding recreational improvements.

Loar said he is willing to consider rededicating a portion of the drainage tax to help pay for road improvements if a different approach is preferred to paying for recreational improvements.

Loar previously opposed using the drainage tax for roads because he did not believe it was enough money to have a major impact.

However, he said the drainage tax could be combined with possible road impact fees on new development that are being considered.

But even a shift of drainage tax to roads may be a tough sell.

Lambert said his problem with rededicating the drainage tax was not the shift to recreation but the loss of drainage money.

“If we got a surplus, we’re going to use the surplus to improve the drainage somewhere,” he said Saturday. “That’s what the people want. That’s what the people need.”

Parish Councilman Travis Turner is set to provide more details about the proposed recreation projects 6 p.m. Thursday during a Council Recreation Committee meeting at the Parish Courthouse Annex, 828 S. Irma Blvd., Gonzales.