LDEC tax fails

Aaron E. Looney
Voting was heavy at Prairieville Middle School Tuesday evening, with voters proceeding to registration tables from three different lines. Voting turnout in the parish was 74 percent, the second highest percentage ever, according to Registrar of Voters Robert Poche.

Amid a voter turnout that nearly set a record Tuesday, Ascension Parish voters Tuesday defeated a proposed 20-year, 3-mill property tax that would have funded the purchase, upgrade and operation of the Lamar-DIxon Expo Center in Gonzales, according to unofficial election returns from the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office.

Two local runoffs were also decided in the general election, as Democrat John C. Hebert defeated incumbent Justice of the Peace Jamie Frederic Braud in the parish's 3rd Justice Court and Republican Danny P. Thibodeaux defeated Democrat George ”G.W.” Anderson to be the next 2nd Justice Court Constable.

Ascension Parish Registrar of Voters Robert Poche said Wednesday that approximately 74 percent of registered voters in the parish cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, the second highest total ever. Poche said the parish’s record voting percentage, 82 percent, occurred during the state’s 1982 gubernatorial election.

With all 61 parish voting precincts reporting Tuesday night, 24,898 voters - or 59 percent - voted against the proposed millage while 17,039 voters - or 41 percent - supported the measure.

The tax’s failure puts the future of the St. Landry Road facilty in limbo, as Parish President Tommy Martinez has said that he will not renew the current four-year lease-purchase agreement between the parish and the Lamar-Dixon Foundation when it expires in July.

Parish estimates showed that the tax was expected to bring in an estimated $2.1 million annually. Martinez said he  planned to use the monies raised through the tax to bond $12 million to go toward purchase and upgrade of the facility.

According to the lease-purchase agreement, the parish has the opportunity to purchase the center - appraised at $50 million - for $7.5 million, using the remainder to upgrade the center with features such as air conditioning and enclosing both the main arena and the 4-H building.

Mary Lee Dixon, one of the founders and builders of the center along with her husband Bill, has said that if the tax did not pass, the facility would likely be sold to a private buyer. Dixon has said she wished to have the parish purchase the arena and keep it as an avenue to better the quality of life in Ascension Parish.

Parish government has attempted to find dollars both at the state and federal levels to aid in purchasing the center, but Martinez said that the dollars have not come through for various reasons.

The complex has events ranging from the Ascension Parish Bicentennial celebration to various outdoors and car shows and high school graduations, among others.

It also served as a base of operations for emergency crews after hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. After Katrina, more than 2,000 evacuees from the New Orleans area were sheltered at the center. It served as a relief supplies station and a staging point for military services after Gustav.

The center, opened in 2000, was operated by the Lamar-Dixon Foundation until then-Parish President Ronnie Hughes entered into the lease-purchase agreement in July 2005. At the time, members of the Parish Council wished to let voters decide whether the parish should purchase control of the center with a sales tax proposal, but Hughes vetoed the measure.

The parish later hired management firm SMG, which opreates other area arenas such as the Louisiana Superdome and the Baton Rouge River Center, to handle day-to-day operations of the expo center.

Since the parish has taken operations of the center, it has operated at a loss of more than $2 million, according to figures from SMG.

During his campaign last fall, Martinez said he wanted to find a permanent funding source for the center so the parish could purchase it and stop the loss of taxpayer dollars.

Both Martinez and SMG officials have said that the center cannot book larger events because of the uncertainty of its future.

In other news, with all 22 precincts reporting in the justice of the peace race, Hebert finished with 8,517 votes - or 53 percent - while Braud collected 7,613 votes, or 42 percent.

The 3rd Justice Court services St. Amant and nearby communities.

With all 27 precincts reporting in the constable race, Thibodeaux finished with 12,531 votes - or 58 percent - while Anderson earned 9,035 votes - or 42 percent.

The 2nd Justice Court oversees civil matters in the Gonzales and Prairieville areas.