Council OKs millage vote for Rec. District 1

Published 1:14 pm Wednesday, January 29, 2014

After hearing public comment on both sides of the issue Monday, the Washington Parish Council gave Recreation District 1 approval to go to the voters for a millage.

The special election on the 10-year tax is set for May 3. The district is proposing the construction of a 115-acre Atoka Recreation Complex at the intersection of Highway 25 N. and Pico Road.

Prior to the vote, Planning Commission member Vance Rogers raised several concerns. He said he supports the Recreation District and the proposed project, but he asked the council to consider a sales tax rather than a millage.

Others offering comment against the millage included Stoney Point resident Bob Ettle, who said the project as planned seems too grandiose for this area, and Franklinton resident Suzannah Fussell, who inquired about the boundaries of Recreation District 1.

Boundary maps were provided to attendees by parish government staff before the vote took place, and parish attorney Wayne Kuhn said additional copies will be available at the Registrar of Voters office in the parish courthouse.

Other parish residents expressed concerns about the potential burden of a tax on the approximately 20 percent of property owners who will have to pay it — as the majority of property owners fall under the property exemption — and potential problems that could be seen with staffing the park.

Stoney Point resident Beth Mizell told Parish Council members they will be held accountable by the public for questions about the project and said accountability and transparency are big concerns for her.

During his turn to offer comment, Recreation District 1 Chairman Johnnie Daniel responded to a question by saying a traffic study has been done. The DOTD will require a turn lane coming to the park from both north and south, at a cost of $150,000 per turn lane.

He also explained that the district chose to seek a millage rather than a sales tax because Franklinton, the only municipality in its district, is already maxed out. He added that the Recreation District board has come before the council multiple times to request the vote.

It is a project the Recreation District has been working on for five years and one the members believe in, Daniel said. He also presented the findings of an economic impact study done by the Southeastern Louisiana University Business Research Center.

“It has shown that once completed, this recreation complex will bring $800,000 annually into this parish,” he said, adding that the complex will support 19 jobs and allow the hiring of three to four employees.

The ballot issue will include two parts, 11 mills for construction and 4.75 mills for operation and maintenance, in one yes or no vote. Daniel explained the reasoning for that.

A recreation district in St. Tammany Parish sought separate millages for its park. The construction part passed and the operation and maintenance tax failed. Daniel said the officials of that recreation complex chose to construct it anyway, thinking the maintenance tax would be passed later.

That tax failed despite multiple attempts, Daniel said. Now the park can only be used during the day because the operators cannot pay for utilities.

Addressing the transparency concerns, he said he would leave business cards and asked people to contact him with any questions. He said the parish government will be handling the recreation district’s finances, which will be subject to annual audit and will be public record.

“I ask that you allow us to be on the May 3 ballot, and let’s let the people decide whether they want this or not,” he said to the councilmen.

Vice Chairman Dennie Fowler said the recreation complex is something that can help bring the parish forward, and he discussed the need for improved recreation facilities.

Following additional comment by supporters, proponents and council members, the council voted unanimously to allow the measure to be placed on the ballot, with several members stating they were voting yes to let the people decide.