Parish council members huddle between a lengthy public hearing on a proposed 1-cent sales tax for roads, and the regular council meeting.
West end road tax tabled; support, opposition aired
Support and opposition to a proposed 1-cent sales tax to fund road maintenance and construction were aired during a public hearing Wednesday.
St. Mary Parish Councilman Dale Rogers had introduced an ordinance that would create a road sales tax district in west St. Mary Parish, with intention to later send the proposed tax to the ballot for voter approval. The ordinance was up for adoption Wednesday, but after the public hearing, Rogers tabled it.
In opposition was Greg Young of the Centerville area. In support was Franklin Mayor Raymond Harris Jr.
Young pointed to a recent study by the Tax Foundation that claims Louisiana’s sales taxes are the highest in the nation at 9.98 percent. He also said the state implemented the largest increase in sales taxes in 2015 amounting to $1.5 billion, approved by the legislature and approved by the governor.
“Out of 49 states, add them all together, they increased their taxes as much as we did in 2016,” Young said. “Our parish, on this end, has been struggling for a long time and it only seems to be getting worse. We have two branch banks closing in Franklin, businesses that are either closing or having a hard time, and yet we have a lot of millages and a lot of sales tax.”
Young said after a person pays all their taxes and now the parish wants to take more. “I’m not saying we don’t need roads, sure we need roads,” he said. “We need infrastructure all around (US 90). We’re not going to attract any businesses.”
He said the council should focus on reducing taxes, particularly property taxes. “It might take 10 years,” he said. “It’s like you keep overspending your budget, and what will happen is what’s happening to St. Mary Parish. Look at how many houses are for sale, and how many are selling, and that tells you’re a lot about the economy in this area.”
Young pointed to the lack of a trade school program in west St. Mary, and lack of a trained workforce. “I think we’ve kinda painted ourselves into a poverty end of the parish, and I’d like to see us get out of that,” he said.
Councilman Craig Mathews disagreed with Young’s comments, saying the state’s tax increases Young referred to were an effort to close the budget deficit. He said he doesn’t believe “people don’t want to migrate to St. Mary because of high millage rates.”
Mathews said many residents of the parish are lacking “basic amenities” and that needs to be addressed by parish government.
“It’s about fiscal responsibility,” Young said. “You think you got it tough? All the businesses here, they can’t go get more revenue. They have to cut employees, close down banks, go out of business. Government has the authority to tax people. It’s not the way to go.”
He also said tax proposals are often put on a ballot “it’s always on a special election” where voter turnout is typically low.
Mayor Harris said “people with a poverty mindset have the mentality, ‘I want something for nothing.’ That’s not our mindset at the City of Franklin. We wanted to improve our water plant, we increased rates. When we wanted to put a better meter system in the ground, state of the art technology, we went up on water rates again. Now we have a sewer plant that from the time we put it online in 1986 it’s been almost dysfunctional. We’re getting ready to modify the plant, we just had a sewer rate and garbage rate increase. If we do nothing, what happens?”
Franklin has rehabilitated many streets, but the borrowing capacity to do so is not currently available, Harris said. “You go to any community that’s growing, they invested infrastructure, they have good roads,” Harris said. “If we do nothing, things get worse. We need to give the people the right to decide if they’re willing to pay for it.”
Mathews said he hears complaints about roads more in west St. Mary than on the east end because there have been many improvements in that part of the parish. “The people who live in these rural and unincorporated area and particularly in the towns and municipalities, there are substandard living conditions in comparison to the other end of the parish,” Mathews said.
Councilman Gabriel Beadle said he doesn’t believe the tax proposal is a social issue, “it’s about the money. Whenever we have a place that is not bringing in finances, it’s hard to tax those finances, so we have to raise the rates so we can get the same amount we did at the lower rate. That’s technically what we’re looking at.”
Beadle said the council is “all for infrastructure” but “the first instance that we have to tax someone, we jump on it. That should be your last resort. First resort should be cutting spending, and using it from other places to put towards roads. Have we looked at that? Have we all looked at that, went through the budget, line-by-line, piece-by-piece, to find where we can save money?”
He pointed out that support from Franklin and Baldwin have been expressed, but “they have the opportunity themselves to pass a tax, but they come here to tell us that we should pass it…so while I think it’s a great gesture to tell us they’re supporting it, they don’t need our support when they can do it themselves.”
Councilman J Ina said he understands about the economy budget limitations, but “it’s obvious that we stand unified on this end of this parish” in presenting the matter to voters. “I strong believe they should be allowed the opportunity to voice their opinion,” he said. “I don’t want the parish council to have the authority to decide to pass a tax.”
Councilman Sterling Fryou said streets in Amelia in his district are in need of repair. “I can’t find money to fix our roads,” he said. “I meet people on the streets every day” who complain about the problem. An earlier tax proposal by the administration was defeated by voters.
Beadle added that “this is dividing the parish. It’s dividing the parish by the Calumet line. It’s making a separate taxing district for the west end of the parish, so this is a divisional ordinance.”
Parish President David Hanagriff, in his report, noted that both sides of the tax issue have valid points. “We’re at a large disadvantage because we don’t have the tax base, we don’t have the money,” he said. “Fifteen years ago the parish bonded money, and used funds from the royalty roads account to do that. They spread that throughout the parish (based on population) and I think that’s something Councilman Beadle is alluding to trying again.”
In other business Wednesday:
—Hanagriff also reported that the US Army Corps of Engineers will construct the North Bend Phase B levee, from the Burguieres Boat Launch, below the La. 317 Bridge and into the Cabot property as a floodwall, then back to a levee around the existing pump station and tying back into North Bend Phase A.
—Jim Firmin and Angela Kraemer reported to the council on the St. Mary Parish Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, which has been struggling financially due to state and other cuts.
—The council introduced an ordinance requiring “requests for proposals” for accounting services.
—Resolutions were adopted including in memory of John Parker Conrad, Conrad Industries; adopting the Section 8 plan Firmin referred to; authorizing Gravois Boats LLC to participate in expansion of business operations in a new location to participate in benefits of the Quality Jobs Program.
—Approved an allocation of $3,000 for the Franklin Youth Baseball Association, and for the Patterson 14U boys for travel and other expenses; and $2,000 for Teche Action Clinic’s community health and wellness fair for back to school.
—Appointed Wynord Thomas Sr. to the zoning board of adjustments.