Ascension Council agrees to run balloon festival

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Dean Durr, from Waynesboro, Miss., inflates his balloon, Dean's Dream, on the last day of competition in the September 2013 Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival in Gonzales. The Ascension Parish Council has agreed to run next year's festival. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Dean Durr, from Waynesboro, Miss., inflates his balloon, Dean's Dream, on the last day of competition in the September 2013 Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival in Gonzales. The Ascension Parish Council has agreed to run next year's festival.

The Ascension Parish Council agreed Thursday to run the Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center next year.

The council also agreed to spend up to $100,000 to cover part of the $145,000 the festival lost this year to buy the trademark rights and to purchase festival-related merchandise.

The votes came amid broad-ranging discussion that repeatedly touched on parish government’s proper role in funding efforts to improve quality of life, including its operation of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

In a 7-3 vote, the festival funding drew opposition from councilmen Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, Bryan Melancon and Todd Lambert who aired concerns about bailing out the event and setting a bad precedent for future nonprofit events.

Satterlee also raised safety concerns, pointing to past events in other states, as well as incidents in Baton Rouge where balloon pilots have crashed and died.

In a separate vote to hold the festival under parish control, Satterlee and Melancon remained opposed, but Lambert voted with the rest of the council.

Also up for discussion was the financial health of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

Parish President Tommy Martinez, the parish auditor and others defended Lamar-Dixon’s financial position as sound.

Auditor Tommy LeJeune presented reorganized financial figures at Martinez’s request for Lamar-Dixon since 2009, when the parish took full control of the events facility in November 2009.

“And I’ll tell you what, just like anything, there’s some amenities for the people of Ascension Parish at Lamar-Dixon that’s never going to show up on a spreadsheet,” concluded Councilman Randy Clouatre after the Lamar-Dixon financial report.

Satterlee has cited operational losses in the most recent audit — losses that are counted before hotel-motel tax revenue, grants and donations come in — to suggest the center was not on good financial footing.

LeJeune’s figures excluded annual depreciation for the complex — which was paid for with federal and state grants, not parish money — and included other grants, donations and tax rebates before the bottom line.

Those accounting changes showed that the center had nearly $1.6 million in positive cash flow between 2009 and 2013.

The center had a surplus of $1.5 million by the end of 2013.

During that time, the parish has invested $883,805 in parish funds, though most came in 2009 and in 2010 as the parish was taking control and settling accounts with the former management company.

“So again, I don’t know what’s so bad about the finances there, but what I see is maybe something different than what somebody else is seeing,” Martinez said.