Request for millage proposal denied | Funds sought for construction, operation of facility

Published 1:16 am Sunday, July 8, 2012

By Richard Meek

The Daily News

Supporters of a recreational complex scheduled to be built north of Franklinton will have to wait for perhaps up to a year to ask voters to approve a millage that would be designated to pay for the project.

Members of the Recreation District 1 board were hoping to garner approval from the Washington Parish Council to place a 13.95-millage proposal on the ballot later this year. Supporters say the millage is needed for construction and operation of the planned 100-acre complex, to be located about two miles north of Franklinton.

The land has already been purchased.

However, given the financial challenges confronting councilmen, the parish finance committee on Monday informed recreation board members that the millage will have to be delayed while the council explores alternative revenue sources.

“Let’s clear something up right now, we are not against recreation,” Councilman Mike Fussell said. “I am for it 100 percent but at this time I’m obligated to take care of a more pressing matter.

“I’m not saying you can’t come before the voters and get that. What time frame, I don’t know.”

Council members learned two weeks ago that the parish’s general fund is projected to have a shortfall of more than $200,000 at the end of 2012. State law demands that the council find a solution to the deficit or the state can step in, similar to what happened more than 30 years ago when employees were laid off or cut to two-day work weeks, and the lights and air conditioning were shut off in some offices.

Parish President Richard Thomas and other officials are planning to meet with officials from the parish’s various subagencies, including the sheriff’s office, assessor, clerk of court and the judicial branch to explore ways departments can be streamlined.

Officials have said a millage increase is one potential revenue resource likely to be discussed, which is why they have placed an unofficial moratorium on allowing any agencies from putting a millage before the voters.

All parish agencies, with the exception of the sheriff’s office, must have a millage proposal approved by the council before going to the voters. The sheriff can put a millage on the ballot at his discretion.

“Because of current circumstances we have to fix the mandated budget discrepancy we have right now,” Councilman Ken Wheat said. “How we’re going to do that I don’t know.

“Until this meeting of minds occurs I cannot see the parish doing anything at this time that would possibly hinder (a potential millage bump.).”

Wheat also voiced his support for the recreation district, which drew an immediate rebuke from Chuck Spangler, owner of Spangler Engineering in Hammond.

“That’s a contradiction,” said Spangler, whose firm only became involved with the rec complex in the past few weeks. “You just contradicted yourself. You are not for recreation.

“You are competing financial needs, which are strict, with the recreation needs, which are totally independent.”

Wheat explained that the council must meet the needs of all its constituents and currently the financial difficulties facing the parish include potential legal actions. There is a concern among elected officials that passage of a recreation district millage could dilute the parish’s chances of having a millage later passed if needed.

“Voters are only going to tolerate so much,” Wheat said. “You are asking us to grant you a portion of the revenue source that is out there that we don’t know it needs to be distributed.”

“I think there will be a resolve (to the financial dilemma) sooner than later, then we can get back to this (the rec district’s millage proposal) with more support than you’re probably feeling right now,” he added. “We are not against it; we just can’t support it right now.”

However, Wheat did little to appease Spangler, who continued to petition the committee to allow the millage be put on the ballot as soon as possible. He also said he believes the complex will generate about $300,000 to $400,000 annually in sales tax revenues once it is operational.

“Instead of you allowing the voters the right to vote on it themselves you are saying we cannot bring this to the voter because it possibly might upstage, where if this millage got passed the public would not be receptive to another millage,” he said.

Spangler also did not appear to be receptive to Fussell’s suggestion that the rec district build the project in phases. Fussell suggested the district, which encompasses the western half of Washing-ton Parish, initially seek 10 to 12 mills and have it renewed in 10 years.

The total cost for the project is estimated to be close to $11 million, and board Vice Chairman Dennie Fowler said that total is down from the original projection of $21 million.

The millage is also scheduled to cover the expected $380,000 a year in operating costs.

Spangler maintained reducing the millage would also mean only a certain percentage of the project could be completed at one time before waiting for another election before moving forward.

Recreation district representatives also expressed concern that a delay would jeopardize the millage even being put before voters or being put on the same ballot with millage proposals from other agencies.

“If we don’t get it now, what is the chance of someone else taking our space?” Mike Gill asked. “At the point you can see we can come in, we want to come in.

“If we educate our children and recreate our children, we don’t have to build more jails.”

Chairman Johnnie Daniel asked that the Parish Council “hold everybody else and give us the opportunity to be by ourselves.

Although no assurances were given, Councilman Andre Johnson told district officials they are “not going to be forgotten.”

The district attorney’s office is not allowed to ask for a millage to pay for its operating expenses. Those are part of the mandated expenses the parish must cover as required by state law.