Small community’s hope for sewer system dimmed by tax struggle between Slidell, St. Tammany

Residents of the Ben Thomas Road community, a tiny, impoverished area just outside Slidell city limits, have struggled for years to tie into parish services that most northshore residents take for granted. But now they are caught up in another struggle — a decades-long political battle between Slidell and St. Tammany Parish over sales taxes and annexations.

The issue at hand is an effort by St. Tammany Parish to provide centralized sewer service to the 58 homes there using a $2.2 million Community Development Block Grant. But the parish doesn’t have the cash to build a new treatment plant, so it wants to send the sewerage to a plant in nearby Slidell.

Slidell’s willingness to help hinges on a sticky issue: whether the parish will change a 25-year agreement over sales tax revenue on commercial property annexed by the city.

Slidell City Councilman Sam Caruso, who was mayor when the city and the parish first wrangled over sales taxes on annexed property in the 1980s, points out that Ben Thomas Road residents don’t live in the city, although he said he is sympathetic to their situation. “I would love to say yes to these people,’’ he said. But cooperation cannot be a one-way street, he said, and that’s how he characterizes the tax-sharing agreement.

The city and parish first came to the settlement in 1986 to prevent annexed retailers from having to collect a 2 cents sales tax for the city and another 2 cents for the parish. Caruso said both governments stood to gain then, since the prospect of higher sales taxes discouraged commercial development.

But neither government gains from the 2006 renewal of the agreement, he said, describing it as “ruinous’’ for the city. It means that Slidell continues to lose half its 2-cent sales tax to the parish on every retail entity that it has annexed or will annex, including some of its most profitable centers — a situation that Caruso views as unfair since the parish provides no services to property within city limits.

St. Tammany Parish Councilman T.J. Smith, who represents Ben Thomas Road, said the project has nothing to do with sales tax dollars even though it’s being used as leverage — an assessment shared by his Ben Thomas Road constituents.

“It seems the planned sewer collection system is being held hostage, due to a city/parish tax issue,’’ Alfred Jones, who lives in the area, said in an email. “Resolution is simple, just work together and not allow negative consequences once again (to) affect a neighborhood of people.’’

Jones and about 10 other Ben Thomas Road area residents turned out at the Slidell City Council meeting last week to talk about keeping the project alive. Many were wearing shirts that identified them as members of the Chahta tribe, a Native American tribe that has a significant presence in the Ben Thomas Road area.

But the group didn’t meet the deadline for getting on the agenda, and Elwin Gillum, spokeswoman for the group and tribal chief, said Council Chairman Lionel Hicks was not willing to allow her to speak from the floor.

The meeting was gaveled to a close after a very brief agenda, and Gillum’s group gathered in the hallway afterwards to talk about their disappointment with the city and to plan their next steps. She urged the group to refrain from shopping in city limits and to spread the word to their families.

Smith said that time is running out for the sewerage project since the grant money has to be spent by the end of the year. The $2.2 million will likely be used for a shovel-ready project elsewhere in the parish, although Smith said it’s still possible that Ben Thomas Road could get centralized sewage in the future. Currently, residents must use septic tanks.

St. Tammany Parish just submitted its four-year plan for CBDG money to the federal government, but that plan can be amended, he said.

As for the sales tax agreement, Smith said that everything is negotiable and the parish and city have had some discussions about what he described as options. “The main thing is a willingness to enter into dialogue and work through these issues,’’ he said.

But Caruso said that while he and Hicks have met with Smith and Councilman Jerry Binder, along with Parish President Pat Brister, those discussions have not resulted in any action toward solving the sales tax issue.

“This agreement is a major problem for the city,’’ he said. “This is not a street on which traffic flows two ways.’’