Until I began writing for The Creole in May of last year I had never attended a meeting of Ascension’s Parish Council and was contentedly oblivious to local politics and government administration. It simply did not hold the same fascination as the national stage where the major parties fight tooth and nail on virtually every issue.
Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, ideologues all it seems to me, argue for the sake of argument and it makes for good theater: drama, comedy, tragedy, and farce…something for everyone. As a system of government it may leave something to be desired, but it’s great entertainment, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
It is not debate. It is competing dogma stated with certitude and fervor akin to an argument over religion between true believers of competing faiths. It is only natural, then, that one side demonizes the other. “If God be for us, who can be against us?.”
If the Council meeting on March 20 is any indication, national political tactics have arrived in Ascension Parish.
The Council passed a resolution endorsing legislation to enable the creation of special taxing districts in the parish by a 6-3 vote over the vehement objections of some of the parish’s self-proclaimed conservative citizens. State Senator Jody Amedee agreed to file that legislation at the urging of Ascension’s governing authority, contingent upon adoption of the resolution.
If parish administration is to be believed, Ascension cannot afford to maintain the roads in the parish system at present. More are added every time the parish accepts a new subdivision. The alternative is refusal to accept new subdivision roads into the system. Districts would be created only when a developer requests it.
Amedee pre-filed SB 278 which would have “authorized the governing authority of Ascension Parish to create special taxing districts for funding infrastructure development” according to the Louisiana legislative digest. No such district could be created before a public hearing is held. The original bill would have funded “a wide variety of specified infrastructure projects” but proceeds of the tax “may only be used” within the district. Non ad valorem assessments could also be levied.
The bill was identical to LA R.S. 33:4690.12, enacted in 2000, which authorizes taxing districts in East Baton Rouge Parish (except “Ascension Parish” was substituted for Baton Rouge in the text).
“I do not want to see this become an omnibus bill with significant potential for government waste and misuse of funding,” said Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee at the March 10 Finance meeting. “20 mills could be a whole lot of tax,” the Councilman added, seeking assurance that “the people get to vote on it.”
Subsequently, Amedee submitted a draft reducing the maximum millage to 15 and limiting infrastructure to roads.
Several speakers, at least three who belong to Ascension Republican Parish Executive Committee (ARPEC), railed against Senator Amedee’s bill. Another was local developer Roy Domangue who circulated an email in anticipation of the March 20 meeting.
“The danger in letting this get to the senate committee then to the floor for a vote,” read the email. “Once it is there, there is nothing we can do to keep them from amending as they desire. Though proposed on residential only at this time, it could be amended to hit industrial and commercial. There is little hope the governor would intervene on a local issue.”
“With one amendment of this law as it is written, it could be applied parish-wide for existing homes, businesses, and industrial properties. No one would be aware of the amendment and it would be done without the vote of the public.”
Who, exactly, would amend Amedee’s bill to “hit industrial and commercial” is unclear. Does Roy Domangue believe that a Senate committee member (representing a non-Ascension district) will amend the bill?
Domangue claimed that “A local attorney (unnamed) went through SB 278” and raised questions which the email went on to list. The highlight:
“What’s to stop the Parish Council from making this parish-wide on existing homes and businesses?”
Well, the bill enables taxing districts in “a small geographic area.” By definition such districts cannot be parish-wide. As conspiracy theories go, this one isn’t bad. It ranks up there with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Obama “birther” movement, just on a smaller scale.
“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” I love that quote Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
Of course, when Domangue addressed the Council he failed to mention any of the concerns included in his email. He was more conciliatory and admitted that special taxing districts are preferable to the parish refusing to accept the roads in a subdivision development.
Especially if his company is the developer, I suspect.
ARPEC Chair Kathryn Goppelt implied “cowardice” on the part of the Council members who favor special taxing districts. Those members desire to tax Ascension’s citizenry but are scared to place such a measure on the ballot.
Local businessman Clint Cointment who, rumor has it, plans to run for Parish President in 2015 was just as inflammatory.
“After a failure of a ½ cent road tax, failed fire tax, lack of support for a sewer tax, lingering impact fees and a proposed recreation tax to be put on the ballot, I am not going to stand here and accuse this administration or members of trying to pull a fast one. But I will tell you, it just looks bad! …The citizens are watching…The hire/fire date of our elected officials is election day, 2015,” Cointment read from a prepared statement.
Interviewed after the meeting, Goppelt and Cointment evinced an anger borne of frustration. They do not, and seemingly will not, take the proponents of SB 278 and subsequent drafts at their word.
“We have to get to the point where new development pays for its own infrastructure. I don’t care how that happens, but that’s what I’ll support,” Councilman Kent Schexnaydre said.
Schexnaydre has spoken favorably of impact fees in the past. Kathryn Goppelt, who lives in his district, winced at the mere mention of Schexnaydre’s name. She did not address the merits of his position.
“There is no such thing as a good tax,” Winston Churchill once said.
Maybe he was right. I bet ARPEC would agree with the sentiment.
Churchill also said “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
Based on my research, special taxing districts and impact fees are designed to do just what Councilman Schexnaydre alluded to; have “new development pay for its own infrastructure.” I, as an Ascension resident, could not support his stance more fervently. I think it only fair that residents of a new subdivisions pay for their own roads, roads which I may never travel. The same reasoning applies to sewer and water and all other infrastructure demands.
I live in Councilman Bryan Melancon’s district and he does not agree with my views on this issue. I’m not angered by this fact. We merely disagree. I don’t question his motivation or his integrity and I accept his position at face value. I don’t think Bryan Melancon has a hidden agenda.
I really don’t understand Clint Cointment’s gripe since he resides in Todd Lambert’s district. Lambert has consistently resisted measures to generate funding, be it through taxation or impact fees. It seems to me that Cointment’s views are being consistently represented by his Councilman.
Maybe I’m naïve (and I’ve always taken such pride in my cynicism). But I don’t view local elected officials with the same suspicion that I harbor toward national, or even state, officials. Maybe it’s because I have come to know the Council members a bit.
I’ve known Kent Schexnaydre for most of my life and, at one time, resided in his district. For anyone to question his character is, to me, ludicrous. Schexnaydre was one of the six Council members who favored the resolution. The others were Teri Casso, Randy Clouatre, Benny Johnson, Dempsey Lambert and Oliver Joseph.
To imply cowardice, like Kathryn Goppelt did at the Council meeting, is beyond the pale of civility and completely wrong. If these Council members are taking an unpopular position, as Goppelt asserts, wouldn’t the opposite be true?
I just can’t bring myself to believe any of them guilty of “pulling a fast one,” in the words of Clint Cointment, in order to impose some parish-wide tax against the will, and without the vote, of the people. In short, I may not agree with their stated positions but I do not question their sincerity.
Nor do I question the sincerity of Councilmen Bryan Melancon, Todd Lambert, Travis Turner, “Doc” Satterlee and Chris Loar. Loar did not vote on the resolution since he is the Council President. Satterlee was not present but indicated later that he would have voted against the resolution.
Goppelt and Cointment are certainly outspoken. Do they speak for the majority of Ascension citizens? Just how pervasive is the ARPEC point of view? I suppose these questions will be answered in 2015.
They may have been answered in the 2011 Parish President’s election wherein Kathryn Goppelt challenged Tommy Martinez. The results: Martinez-72%, Goppelt-28%.