Dville hospital tax reduction to appear on ballot

Halen Doughty

At a special meeting of the Ascension Parish Council, members approved a resolution to put a proposal on the November ballot to reduce the one-half cent sales tax that benefits the West Ascension Hospital Service District. The motion comes after the Louisiana State Legislature passed a bill by Senator Ed Price to put that reduction up for a vote.

Attorney Randy Robert, who represents the West Ascension Hospital District, spoke in opposition to the matter. He said this resolution does not reflect the wishes of the hospital district or of Prevost Memorial Hospital in Donaldsonville. He said the reduction of this tax could be detrimental to the hospital and jeopardize the future of the healthcare facility. Robert said the legislature has forced this issue upon the council against the wishes of the hospital board.

"They do not believe it is in the best interest of the hospital," said Robert. "They do not believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of West Ascension, people that have relied on Prevost Hospital to provide them with medical care and services for more than 60 years."

Jeff Diez, an attorney representing the parish council, said last year the state legislature voted unanimously to put this proposition on the ballot for the people. Some members raised questions about how the reduction of this tax would affect the hospital, while others had questions about how Prevost is using the money it already has, citing a $20 million surplus in the facility's budget.

Councilman Aaron Lawler referenced a previous issue with the hospital, after it was learned that some of its bathroom doors are not wide enough to accommodate patients in wheelchairs. Lawler said that forces some patients who would otherwise be able to use the bathroom to use a bed pan.

"I don't know how many years someone has to have a hospital where individuals who are confined to a wheelchair cannot use a restroom because they failed to widen the doors after having millions of dollars in the bank," said Lawler.

Hospital staff in attendance at the meeting refused to confirm whether the width of the doorways had been addressed. Lawler said if the people of Donaldsonville are paying sales taxes, they should have a say in the matter.

"The people of Donaldsonville and the West Bank, I think they're the best to decide whether or not they're getting the services that they're paying for," said Lawler.

The issue of the people's say in the matter came up when members discussed the longevity of this tax. When the sales tax was approved more than 37 years ago, no sunset was placed on it. Members said that is an uncommon practice among most taxes, which typically come up for renewal every few years.

Council Chairman Bill Dawson said because this tax was approved decades ago, a vast majority of the people paying sales taxes in Donaldsonville never got to vote on the issue in the first place. He said there has not been another vote on this tax since it was passed in 1980.

"If you did a little bit of math on that, 83 percent of the people who are paying that tax today never voted on it," said Dawson. "So someone has to be 55 years or older in order to have voted on that in 1980."

If the proposal wins approval from voters, citizens would then decide whether to use the other quarter percent of the tax for something else or simply have a reduced tax rate. One proposition for the remaining one-quarter cent would be to fund recreation on the West Bank. The quarter cent tax, if reduced from the hospital budget, would also have to be approved by voters for the potential recreation fund.

Councilman Oliver Joseph, who represents the West Bank, said parents and children throughout the community want to see recreation improvements in their city. He said the council looked at multiple pots of money to pull from in order to make those improvements. Because of the surplus in the hospital budget, he said they decided this was the best way to fund West Ascension recreation.

"People elect me to make a decision and look for options," said Joseph. "I looked for an option, and I see an option."

Councilman Travis Turner said he does not see a problem with allowing the people of the West Bank to vote on a tax that's affecting them. He said even if the people decide not to use the other portion of the sales tax for recreation, it's still more money back in their own pockets.

"Every other tax comes up for a vote, and the people vote to either renew it or shoot it down," said Turner.

Lawler pointed out that if voters see a problem with the hospital after the tax is reduced, there is nothing that prevents them from reinstating it at a later date.

"If they see an issue with the hospital that they've burnt through $20 million and they still can't get into the bathrooms, they may ask for that one-quarter cent sales tax to come back," said Lawler. "There's nothing stopping them from that. Give the voters a chance to make a decision."

The vote was 5 to 3 in favor of the motion. The sales tax reduction will appear on the November 6 ballot.

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