City Council moves on sewer repair, hears sales tax plea

Published 7:14 am Friday, April 5, 2013

The Bogalusa City Council quickly took care of business Tuesday then listened to Washington Parish President Richard Ned Thomas explain the need for increased sales tax funding in advance of the April 6 vote.

The council passed ordinances that authorize Mayor Charles Mizell to enter into contracts with the low bidders for Emergency Sewer Repair Contract Number Two of the 2012 Sewer Rehabilitation Program, which covers work on Military Road and part of Austin Street, for sand and gravel and for gas and diesel.

In all cases, the low bidders were not named and are said to be “under advisement.”

The council also passed a resolution to send the

annual Municipal Water Pollution Prevention Environmental Audit Report to the state and one that proclaims April “Safe Digging Month” in support of the CenterPoint Energy national initiative.

An ordinance that would change the zoning at 400 Masonic Drive to enable construction of a sandwich shop and one that would authorize the mayor to enter into an agreement with Joseph Furr Design Studio for a splash pad, walking paths, restroom building, pavilions, play area and site work in connection with the development of the master plan for Cassidy Park were introduced and will be up for public hearings at the next meeting April 16.

The bulk of the meeting involved a presentation by the parish urging support of the .33 percent sales tax increase, which will be decided in Saturday’s election.

With Sheriff Randy Seal, Clerk of Court Johnny Crain Jr, Assessor Jimbo Stevenson, Director of Homeland Security Tommy Thiebaud, Assistant District Attorney Lewis Murray, parish councilmen and others present, Thomas and Director of Finance Donna Alonzo presented a slide show that detailed how the state created mandated expenses in 1938, shared funding responsibility with parishes in 1959 and then put the funding burden solely on the parishes in 1973.

The mandated expenses require parish governments to provide housing, equipment, supplies and security for the assessor, clerk of court, district judges, registrar of voters and sheriff, plus pay some salaries and other expenses for those offices and that of the coroner and district attorney.

The approximately $2 million total includes such expenses as keeping, feeding and providing medical care for parish prisoners.

Because all other parish funds are dedicated, the expenses must be paid out of the general fund.

Thomas and Alonzo explained the revenues available to the parish to fund government administration and the mandated expenses are limited and the income they provide is declining.

A 4 mill ad valorem tax, which brings in about $450,000 a year, has shown slight increases over the past six years, but projections indicate a 3 percent decline for 2013 after reassessment, they said.

Timber severance, which typically brought in more than $400,000 a year before Hurricane Katrina, has since declined to an average of $150,000 annually, which represents a loss to the parish of more than $1.2 million.

The only sales tax revenue available to the general fund is 68 percent of the excess of a two-thirds percent sales tax dedicated primarily to landfill operations. The funds have reportedly decreased over the past three years from about $2 million to $850,000 annually.

In an attempt to address what was called a growing crisis, the parish has taken measures to reduce spending, and has cut its budget by more than 44 percent since 2009. The actions include reworking the health insurance to provide minimal change in coverage while saving $800,000, a reduction in technology expenses of $87,000 in three years and a reduction in audit fees by 30 percent.

But, as Assistant District Attorney Lewis Murray said later, “more draconian cuts” will be necessary if the tax measure does not pass.

The parish proposes a two-step solution. One is the rededication of .67 percent of the sales tax to primarily move 15 percent of the excess after the landfill dedication from the parish transportation fund and to a criminal justice and public safety fund.

The second is the one-third cent sales tax, which would be levied parishwide except in Franklinton, which has already hit its tax limit.

The tax would be levied for 20 years beginning on July 1 and would fund criminal justice and public safety.

It is projected to bring in $1,200,000 annually.

Parish Councilman Mike Fussell said both steps are necessary for the parish to cover the mandated and other necessary expenses.

“I’ve been asked why the rededication and sales tax,” he said. “We looked at both, and one would not be sufficient. Point 33 percent is not enough.”

Mizell said that before he took office as mayor of Bogalusa he “might have put a ‘no new tax’ sign out.” But now he supports the tax increase.

“To me this is a vote of confidence in this administration that has led our parish and done a miraculous job while cutting to the bone,” he said.

“People talk about St. Tammany. Our revenue is minute compared to them, but we have about 80 percent of their amount of roads to take care of. Point 33 percent of a penny to maintain them and to (generally) keep us up to speed is more than fair. I’m for it.”

The mayor was quick to point out that the parish government works for Bogalusa.

“Whenever I might have to call and ask Richard Ned Thomas a favor, he pulls through,” Mizell said. “He’s a friend to Bogalusa.”