Letter to the Editor: Former parish councilman questions parish financial moves

Doug Hillensbeck

With elections looming this year, the news is all good and dirt will be moving soon according to our elected parish council and parish president on the East Ascension Drainage Board.  It’s been reported the Corps of Engineers may finally issue permits for possibly three projects from the 2007 Ascension Bond Issue of $65 million. The “spin” should be ignored, because it’s really not good. With $65M sitting idle almost four years, approximately $13 million has been wasted from interest paid while the Board decided on projects and obtained permits. 

Former Parish President Ronnie Hughes (2004-2007) pointed out many times that well over a $100 million in drainage taxes were misspent over the years on anything and everything except what the voters in 1984 had approved the taxes for – The Follett Master Drainage Plan.  This 2007 bond issue of 40 years at 5% interest will cost us taxpayers $130 million interest.  Add the principal of $65M and the total payback will be $195 million! 

Since 2007 when the Board approved the issue, economic conditions have worsened. If the economy continues as is, it’s questionable if the voters will approve the renewal of millage elections in 2018, 2028, and 2038 for this debt. Ascension has not qualified for any matching state or federal dollars. Matching funds are allocated on a cost/benefit ratio analysis.  No matching funds indicate a lack of value and benefit from the planned projects.  In an attempt to deflect attention from this fact, it was recently announced that some costs associated with these projects may be reimbursed later from future partnering with the Ponchartrain Levee District and other parishes. This is more “spin”!

In 2007, I opposed the bond issue and some of my colleagues were very critical of me, including the local media for my stand.  I asked the Board to wait until projects were identified, preliminary engineering was completed and permits were in hand.  Councilman Kent Schexnaydre insisted the Board was ready to move forward and with Chairman Todd Lambert’s support, other members approved the bonds three months before their run for re-election.  While I’m pleased for being vindicated because I opposed the issue, I still am sadly disappointed for the taxpayers of Ascension.  

Recently much was made of Ascension receiving an award for governmental accounting by some elected officials.  Accounting of our tax dollars by the finance department in no way reflects on the wisdom of spending and debt decisions made by our politicians.  This “spin” combined with past history should concern the voters about all financial and tax decisions by our elected officials. Council Chairman Pat Bell recently proudly proclaimed there was no wasteful spending in Ascension Parish Government. I disagree and you could do a lot of good for the people with $13 million instead of paying interest for nearly four years. It’s apparent in Ascension we’re no different from questionable financial actions like others recently reported around the country.

Doug Hillensbeck