Property tax plan chosen for LDEC

Aaron Looney
A 'LIGHT' WORKOUT: From left, Ronald Durst, Jude Mapes and Chad Braud of Bayou Electrical Services Inc. install new lighting bulbs on towers at East Ascension High School’s Spartan Stadium Wednesday afternoon. The lights will begin shining down on football action next Thursday, as East Ascension will host the annual M. Paul LeBlanc Jamboree.

Ascension Parish voters will have the chance to decide this fall if parish government should purchase the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, as the Ascension Parish Council voted 6-2 Tuesday to place a tax issue on the Nov. 4 ballot to fund the purchase and upgrade of the multi-use facility.

However, the council chose a 3-mill property tax issue proposed by Parish President Tommy Martinez as the funding mechanism and not the 1/8-cent sales tax plan pitched at last week’s Finance Committee meeting.

Voting for the resolution Tuesday were Councilmen Randy Clouatre, Benny Johnson, Oliver Joseph, Dempsey Lambert, Chris Loar and Kent Schexnaydre.

Councilmen Todd Lambert and George Valentine voted against the millage tax proposal.

Councilmen Dennis Cullen and Adrian Thompson were absent from the meeting held in the council’s chambers, and Council Chair Pat Bell did not vote on the matter.

The vote came after in-depth discussions between council members and Martinez, as well as public outcry to keep the 300-acre complex open.

After Councilman Todd Lambert - who presented the 1/8-cent sales tax plan at the committee meeting – made a motion to accept the plan and was seconded by Valentine, Loar made a substitute motion to instead place Martinez’s property tax plan on the ballot.

Loar said that placing a sales tax proposal on the ballot might endanger the chances for a planned half-cent sales tax proposal next year to fund road improvements.

“I think that in its current state, Lamar-Dixon is an unstatainable situation,” Loar said. “We need to put this to bed. I think we need to put it to the people and let them once and for all decide what we’re going to do with it. I don’t want to be arguing about it for another four years.”

Lambert questioned the legality of the vote, stating that the council could not vote on the property tax plan since it was not listed on the council’s agenda. Lindsey Manda, legal counsel for the parish, told Lambert that the resolution could be amended prior to a vote of the council.

In supporting the sales tax plan, Lambert said that it would mean that everyone who made purchases in the parish, including people from outside the parish, would contribute to the fund.

“Over 50 percent of the people that use Lamar-Dixon come from out of the parish,” Lambert said. “Why not put a sales tax on the ballot? They’d help pay for it.”

With a property tax, Lambert said, parish property owners who may never use the center will be forced to pay for its purchase.

Lambert said that his figures show that a sales tax would raise more funds than a property tax. He added that while residential property owners may only see an increase of $27 per month on a $175,000 home, a millage would have a larger impact on local business industry, which he said brings in 49 percent of the parish’s revenues.

“The fairest thing we came up with at the Finance Committee meeting was the sales tax,” Lambert said.

Schexnaydre said that he did not feel comfortable collecting a sales tax if it were not being put toward road improvements.

Clouatre said that if the parish were to purchase the center, all businesses would reap the rewards.

“Lamar-Dixon is a strong part of the economic development here,” Clouatre said. “But the people do need to decide. If they don’t want it, so be it.”

Valentine said that he did not feel Martinez’s proposal had a solid plan for use of the funds. He also said that there have been other potential buyers looking to purchase the center, including one current option involving local businesses, The Ascension Chamber of Commerce and River Parishes Community College. He suggested that the council “let that option play out” before making a decision.

Valentine also said that even if the parish purchased the facility, which has finished in the red each year since its creation, it would not see as much of an economic boost because many of the businesses in close proximity to the center are located within the city limits of Gonzales.

“The city is the beneficiary of 85 to 90 percent of Lamar-Dixon’s benefit,” Valentine said.

Valentine also questioned if the parish would still have to follow guidelines set by the Lamar-Dixon Foundation if the parish were to buy the center.

Martinez said the millage plan was “simply an option” for the council to consider because he felt something had to be done to rectify the situation. He has stated on numerous conditions that he would not favor renewing the current lease-purchase agreement, which expires next July.

“It’s not my job to make the decision,” Martinez said. “I’m just presenting you with a plan.”

Martinez told the council that Mary Lee Dixon, who built the center with her husband, Bill, indicated to him that she wants the parish to own the facility.

According to the parish’s current lease-purcahse agreement with the Lamar-Dixon Foundation, the parish can at any time purchase the facility for a cost of $7.5 million. With the center’s last appraisal coming in at $49 million, Martinez said the parish would be paying around 16 cents on the dollar if it bought the center.

Martinez also said that if the parish purchased the facility, it would give management firm SMG a more stable ownership situation to use in booking larger events.