DONALDSONVILLE — Geismar community activist Sam Baker asked the Ascension Parish Council, facing a key vote on a $1.84 million economic incentive package, to use its momentary leverage on the company seeking the assistance.
Baker, 66, said Westlake Chemical Corp. has not kept up communications with the surrounding community since a March 22 explosion and fire.
The blast wrecked a unit in the plant in Geismar on La. 30, sent chemicals aloft and sparked civil suits and a federal workplace safety investigation.
He told the council during its meeting Thursday night in Donaldsonville that the Houston-based company canceled a follow-up meeting and hasn’t spoken with the community since.
Baker also later claimed a siren system to warn the public was not used for Westlake incidents on March 22 or in a subsequent May 9 chemical release due to a power outage.
“We’re asking you all to not agree to do anything till they rectify their relationship with the community that they’re residing in. Things have happened, and people are afraid because of a lack of communication,” Baker told the council.
At stake was a cooperative endeavor agreement that was the final link in a deal giving Westlake potentially $1.84 million in sales tax rebates from parish government on initial construction and equipping of a $466 million plant expansion dubbed Project Stardust.
The council’s offer to Westlake, hashed out during a several-month period and vetted by the Ascension Economic Development Corp., or AEDC, was just the third instance of the council’s use of the new Ascension Advantage local incentive program adopted last year.
The parish incentives are offered in addition to whatever financial inducements new or expanding companies get from the state.
Westlake’s expansion is expected to bring 60 permanent jobs.
Councilman Travis Turner moved to delay approval of Westlake’s deal until its officials met with the community. He got a second for discussion purposes.
But council attorney O’Neil Parenton informed members that they had previously adopted an ordinance approving the deal with Westlake. He said the agreement before the council Thursday only lays out how the rebate will be handled.
At the urging of Councilman Kent Schexnaydre, the council settled on a substitute motion backing the agreement and calling on Westlake separately to meet with the community and address the concerns.
The council was not willing to go as far as Baker and Turner wanted, but the instance provided an example of how the council was tentatively feeling its way around the added influence that putting incentive dollars on the table can create. In other cases, the council has tried to flex a little more muscle and could try to apply more as time passes.
The council already has established language in the incentive agreements saying that companies receiving incentives make reasonable attempts to hire parish residents for permanent jobs and hire local contractors and manufacturers, though they are not firm requirements.
Parish officials and AEDC officials also are planning on a sliding scale that would tie receipt of the full rebate to meeting initial jobs promises: fewer than expected jobs, less rebate.
So far, the incentives considered by the council have involved rebates of all or a portion of the parish’s rural 1-cent sales tax.
Parish President Tommy Martinez said in an interview Friday he would also like to limit future sales tax rebates to a half of the 1-cent tax.
“We want to put as many conditions in as we can that will protect the parish for one thing but also help the parish make sure it is a true incentive to where they will come and they will build,” Martinez said. “You don’t want to water it down until it means nothing. We would like them to be more community-minded.”
Martinez said he hopes the parish can develop a generic plan for the incentives and not face widely varying community demands every time a company comes before the council.
Mike Eades, president and chief executive officer of AEDC, which is the author of the incentive program, said he anticipated there would be some tweaks.
“I don’t have any issue with anything they suggested,” Eades said of council members’ discussion of the program.
The council voted without opposition to approve the Westlake agreement. Councilman Oliver Joseph was absent. Council Chairman Chris Loar does not vote unless to break a tie. Councilman Todd Lambert, who works at Westlake, recused himself.
A spokesman for Westlake was not immediately available for comment Friday afternoon.