Officials urge 'yes' vote for half-cent sales tax on Nov. 6 ballot

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor

Local officials are urging voters to vote "yes" Nov. 6 for a half-cent sales tax in unincorporated Ascension Parish to pay for road improvements and improve traffic flow.

If voters in the parish okay the increase, it will fund specific projects listed on the parish's website www.lanesforchange.com. The plan was developed in response to surveys conducted on how better to serve the community, according to Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez.

"Every four years we do a public opinion poll; and, every year we get the same answer: The No. 1 problem in Ascension Parish is traffic congestion and poor road conditions," he said.

He said the most recent poll conducted by Magellan Strategies on Aug. 14-16, 2012, shows 64 percent of voters would support the half-cent sales tax, while 32 percent of voters would oppose the measure.

Mark West, with Louisiana Association of Tax Administrators, dispelled the rumor that if the measure passes, local businesses will have to pay additional taxes on their property and inventory.

"Sales tax does not apply to the lease or rental of property," he said. "That sounds like a property tax. The sales tax on businesses is identical to that of consumers. If a business owner is purchasing a calculator or computer to use in his business, then he will have to pay a sales tax. This does not apply to inventory for resale. Only the final consumer has to pay sales tax."

He also praised parish officials for their effective use of financial resources.

"Ascension Parish does more with less than any of the people I collect for," he said. "The responsibility of Ascension Parish government is vast. They pay for everything in the parish except law enforcement and education."

The parish president said his finance department recently received a prestigious award for its operations and management of taxpayer dollars. He said the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA) Distinguished Budget Presentation Award was presented to Chief Financial Officer Gwen LeBlanc and her staff during the Sept. 20 Ascension Parish Council meeting.

He said within the state of Louisiana, only six parishes have ever won this award: East Baton Rouge Parish, Caddo, Iberville, Jefferson, Terrebonne and now Ascension.

Martinez said officials recognize that no one likes to pay more taxes, however, he believes a sales tax is the fairest way to go to pay for roads that everybody uses.

"A lot of people go to Baton Rouge to shop," he said. "When you do, you're paying 9 percent sales tax to help them build the roads there."

He said the tax would last 25 years, boost the sales tax rate in unincorporated areas of the parish from 8.5 percent to 9 percent and begin collection on Jan. 1, if voters approve the proposition.

"It won't make all of our road woes go away, but the roads will be improved, traffic will move better and we'll be safer," he said.

Ben Laurie, parish chief engineer, said the No. 1 project to complete is the Roddy Rd./Joseph Sevario Rd. project which connects local roads to Airline Hwy.

His No. 1 bridge project is replacing the Rountree and Village Rd. bridges, because they serve a large number of people in the area. The Summerfield Rd., Babin Rd. and Dewey Smith Rd. bridges will also be replaced. Laurie is looking at reconfiguring the road at Summerfield to do away with one of the bridges there.

He said these projects could be completed within a year, if the funding was available. Otherwise, he estimates it will take between four and five years to complete.

Martinez said a "no" vote will hurt economic development and job growth in our area.

"We have to catch infrastructure up and be sure it keeps up with growth and development," he said. "We also have to look ahead to the future to make sure we don't have the same problems in the next few years."

Martinez addressed the rumor that the half-cent sales tax is tied to the DOTD Road Transfer program. He said the Lanes for Change program stands alone.

"We don't have to take in the first state road," he said. "If we do, the Council has to vote on the roads, individually. There would have to be an ordinance and public meetings with the people getting a chance to voice their opinions."

He said if the parish did participate, the DOTD Road Transfer program would allow local government to take over certain state roads, but only if the roads were in good condition. Also, the state would be required to give the parish the cost of maintaining the roads for the next 40 years.

Martinez said the Lanes for Change program is similar to the Green Light program in Baton Rouge.

"That program is working pretty much on schedule as far as I can see," he said. "We've done a lot of research before we started down this path."

The tax is expected to generate $8 million per year, fund up to $80 million in bonds and leave about $3 million per year in pay-as-you-go funds after the bonds' debts service is paid.

Voters can see the entire list of projects which the sales tax will pay for at www.lanesforchange.com. A summary of project costs is also listed on the website.