Sorrento’s survival in question

While nearly everything is growing in Ascension Parish, the little town of Sorrento appears stuck in neutral.

Ascension, one of the fastest-growing parishes in the state, is continuing a 20-year population boom fueled by good schools and industrial expansion. Meanwhile, Sorrento — a community of 1,401 residents on the parish’s vibrant east bank — is struggling.

Now there’s talk about dissolving the municipality.

Situated along Interstate 10, Airline Highway and La. 22, Sorrento’s location — 30 miles southeast of Baton Rouge — should allow for residential and commercial expansion. Despite that advantage, the town has been beset by political infighting and a police department plagued by turnover, allegations of impropriety and lawsuits.

Nearly 60 years after a group of residents allied to incorporate the community, some town leaders now say services and quality of life are worse today than they were during the town’s beginnings.

The community got its start as a sawmill town in the early 1900s as a stop on a rail line. The name of the town comes from a song, “Come back to Sorrento,” that was popular at the time.

Mayor-elect Mike Lambert, who takes office July 1, said he has major concerns about the town’s fiscal status.

Sorrento’s small tax base is about to get smaller. River Parishes Community College, which opened in the town in 1999, is moving to Gonzales.

And litigation involving the police department could “wipe out” the town’s cash reserves, Lambert said. The town recently settled a lawsuit filed by one of its police officers against the Sorrento Police Department and police Chief Earl Theriot, and another suit by an officer is pending.

“Long term, I’ve got some very serious concerns,” Lambert said. “Short term, we’ve got to see how badly these civil suits are going to affect our cash reserves.”

One possible solution to both the town’s short- and long-term problems is to dissolve and let the parish take over government services to the community.

“This issue has been brought up to me by townspeople,” Lambert said. “I hate to see Sorrento lose our identity, but in a sense, we have lost our identity.”

The process of dissolving is not simple.

Don Nijoka, the deputy director of the Louisiana Municipal Association, said the dissolution outline for a town the size of Sorrento is spelled out in state Revised Statute 33:251-266.

The first step to dissolve any municipality of fewer than 2,500 residents requires a petition signed by both a majority of the registered voters and the approval of the largest landowners. That petition must then be presented to the Sorrento Town Council, which would declare a special election.

Like the petition, the election would require a majority of voters weighted by property tax value.

Brenda Melancon, a former mayor and town historian, said the town’s early leaders “would be shocked” by the town’s image today.

“The first few councils wanted to see Sorrento become something,” she said. “They worked for nothing really. They were respectable. They didn’t take their voting lightly. They put a lot of thought into it and tried to do what was best for the town.”

The town had a thriving business community, recreation program, a baseball park and garbage collection. Before the industrial boom, when Ascension Parish was still a rural parish, the town of Sorrento had paved streets while the parish still had dirt roads.

Today, there are no town parks, no recreation and few services. Two of the town’s most well-known events — the Boucherie Festival and the fire department’s annual trail ride — are no longer held.

Melancon, nevertheless, said she’s not sold on the idea of dissolving the town. The biggest issue, she said, is the town’s low property tax rate.

The average property tax rate in Sorrento is 60.7 mills. In the parish, that figure is 107 mills, according the parish Assessor’s Office. With no town, the property owners in Sorrento would pay the parish tax. On a $200,000 home with homestead exemption, the difference would be almost $600 per year.

The parish already assists the town when possible, especially with major drainage projects. Kent Schexnaydre, the parish councilman who represents the Sorrento area, said the parish recently donated a surplus dump truck for the town to use and has helped overlay streets.

“Because of the financial situation of the town, we go as far we can legally to assist them,” said Schexnaydre, who wouldn’t comment on whether or not the town should remain incorporated.

Although Sorrento’s location may be ideal for residential and commercial growth — its only school, Sorrento Primary, opened two years ago — major industrial development is not an option.

Mike Eades, chief executive officer and president of the Sorrento-based Ascension Economic Development Corp., which works on economic development projects for parish and municipal governments, said that while there are some smaller tracts available for future business development, the town is hindered by both wetlands and the lack of larger properties.

Lambert is a believer in Sorrento’s potential, though. There’s room for growth along La. 22, and he said the growth will come to Sorrento “in spite of itself.”

He did admit, however, that it might grow more quickly as an unincorporated community than as a municipality.

Dissolving the town would have some immediate benefits, Lambert said. The streets should improve. Recreation options would become available. The parish could expand the existing sewer infrastructure. But it also would mean the departure of the town’s police department. That could be a positive, but he’s not sure what Sheriff Jeff Wiley’s plans would be to patrol and monitor the area.

Either way, Lambert said, Sorrento’s image problem needs to be addressed.

The town’s contentious politics resulted in a new mayor, the fourth in four years. The April 6 election also resulted in a town council with three new members and only two incumbents.

“Maybe (dissolving) is the easy way out. It may be easy to say, ‘Turn the lights out and let the parish have it,’” said Lambert, who has not yet decided if that’s the way to go.

“I think the people of the town of Sorrento are very disgusted by the things that are going on in the town. I ran out of frustration. I didn’t run because I like politics. I hate politics.

“I ran because I’ve been here all my life and I’m tired of people talking bad about Sorrento,” said Lambert, 53 and the owner of trucking company.

“I hate Sorrento being the butt of all the jokes in the parish.”