Terrebonne voters to decide Morganza sales tax

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Terrebonne Parish voters head to the polls Dec. 8 to accept or reject a new half-cent sales tax.

A task force of 20 business and civic organization leaders agreed in May to ask taxpayers for the tax increase that would help the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District finance completion of the inner levee and floodgate Morganza-to-the-Gulf storm surge protection system.

The proposed sales tax has a 28-year sunset provision and would be used to generate an estimated $188 million from 25-year community bonds.

Among the organizations that have publically endorsed the added sales tax is the Terrebonne Parish Republican Party Executive Committee. The group’s chairman, Darrin Guidry (who also serves on the Terrebonne Levee Commission Board of Commissioners and is owner of the Tri-Parish Times) said the feedback he has received has all been positive.

Among the reasons cited for local Republican support was disappointment with Washington, D.C., leadership not recognizing that the Terrebonne Parish region provides approximately 30 percent of the nation’s energy resources.

The Republicans also echoed the levee district’s complaint with a lack of cooperation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in assisting with funding and manpower.

“The Calvary isn’t coming [to rescue us],” Guidry said. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is only interested in studies, and our government in Washington, D.C., is broke. It’s time for us to take matters into our own hands.”

In what would be a bi-partisan move, the Terrebonne Parish Democrat Party Executive Commission was expected to also endorse the sales tax measure during its Tuesday meeting. “As a parish council member I am in support of it, but the [Democrats] have not made an official decision as of yet,” Terrebonne Parish Council and Democrat Chairwoman Arlanda Williams said prior to the Democrat’s meeting.

“We are hoping it can get the endorsement of both the Republican and the Democratic Party in Terrebonne [Parish],” Guidry said. “That would be a coup to say it had by bi-partisan support. I want this tax to pass with 80 to 85 percent, because that sends a message to the state and the federal government.”

The Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce, which backed previous efforts for local financing of Morganza to the Gulf, has thrown its support behind the half-cent sales tax proposal.

“We recognize that Morganza to the Gulf is our best hope to save this parish from catastrophic flooding in the event of a hurricane or other tropical storms,” Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce President-elect Jennifer Armand said. “In order to remain economically viable as well as a prosperous home for our families completion of Morganza is extremely critical.”

Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District Executive Director Reggie Dupre spent much of his time since May campaigning for the sales tax effort.

“Feedback has been positive,” Dupre said. “I haven’t heard of any organized opposition, but you will always have individuals that no matter what are against taxes.”

While no organized group has been identified and it is difficult to find anyone willing to go on the record in opposing the half-cent sales tax, there are still residents with concerns for assurances of how any newly generated revenue would be spent.

Kim Chauvin is owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. She said although she supports the sales tax, she wants assurances that collected revenue would be used for its promoted intention and not wasted.

“I want to know about the transparency,” she said. “I think Morganza is a good thing because we need hurricane protection, but anytime that someone wants to throw down a tax, you need to know where the loopholes exist. I looked at this and think it is excess. I wonder what they are not telling us and why it is not specifically presented.”

Dupre said during repeated public presentations that all monies collected from this sales tax are dedicated to specific construction projects. “None of it is for administrative costs,” he said.

“I want some accountability,” Chauvin said. “I want to be assured this is going toward Morganza to the Gulf and going to the projects they named. If they have another project, they should name it. I just want to know my money is not going into somebody’s pocket or being wasted, but I need to get more information on this project before I vote. Although I support (the half-cent Morganza tax), I am not willing to tax people and not get what we are being taxed for.”

Chauvin was not alone in her concerns while at the same time supporting the proposed tax to finance the levee and floodgate system.

NAACP Terrebonne Parish Branch President Jerome Boykin said his organization is willing to endorse the half-cent sales tax for Morganza to the Gulf completion, but he would like to see greater participation of minority contractors in the construction process and even more diversity on the Terrebonne Levee Commission Board of Directors.

“This is something that has been on my mind and I’ve spoken to Reggie about it,” Boykin said. “I think [the tax] is a good idea and we need more money to help complete Morganza to the Gulf, but instead of putting it on the ballot for the [Nov. 6] presidential election, they put it on the [Dec. 8] ballot where there will be fewer voters.”

Boykin said such a ballot positioning might lead some to think backers of the tax were targeting only the most loyal voters, most of which are suspected to be Morganza sales tax supporters. “They are looking for lower turnout to get the tax passed,” he said. “It should have been on the ballot where you have more turnout rather than less turnout.”

Dupre said there was strategy behind placing the sales tax question on the Dec. 8 rather and the Nov. 6 ballot, but it was not what Boykin suspected.

Dupre said placing the sales tax issue on the Dec. 8 election was designed to keep it from getting lost in a larger number of ballot items. “With the presidential election and the constitutional amendments and everything, we would have been lost in the shuffle,” he said. “This issue would not get the attention it is now getting.”

“We do need levee protection in this area, and we need more money for this project,” Boykin said. “I’m for [the sales tax], but I don’t want to see them manipulate the public by when this is on the ballot. We know, based on history, not as many people are going to go out and vote after the presidential election. That’s my concern.”

“My concern is also that voter turnout will be low,” Dupre said. “I expect maybe a 20 percent turnout which means one vote on this type of election is equal to three votes in the presidential election.”

Terrebonne Parish currently carries a 4.5 percent sales tax. Combined with a 4 percent state sales tax, every dollar spent in Terrebonne Parish sees 8.5 cents going to government bodies.

According to the Louisiana Association of Tax Administrators, voter approval of a new tax would bring the Terrebonne Parish and state total combined sales tax to 9 cents on the dollar. In comparison, an average 4.6 percent sales tax in Lafourche Parish combined with the statewide level has consumers paying 8.6 percent sales tax on purchases.

St. Mary Parish consumers pay a total 8.03 cents on the dollar sales tax by combining the parish average 4.3 percent with the state level of 4 percent.

Although the half-cent sales tax proposal is being issued by the levee district and not the consolidated government, leaders in both Terrebonne and neighboring parishes have voiced support for local financing of the Morganza project.

“It is important to keep in mind that we will continue to be threatened by tropical systems large and small until we are able to restore out coast and build our hurricane protection levees,” Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said. “We also must draw a line in the sand to prevent further coastal erosion.”

“We can’t rely on the federal government anymore,” Lafourche Parish Council Chairman Joe Fertitta said. “We have to go ahead and tax ourselves to build our levees. I hope the [Terrebonne Parish] voters OK [the sales tax].

“It is imperative that we continue to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that we move forward in building Morganza to the Gulf and other lines of defense to provide a level of protection suitable for our great parish.”

Backers of the half-cent sales tax point not only to land loss in Terrebonne Parish, but other areas where a lack of flood protection resulted in economic loss.

St. Bernard Parish, they note lost 46 percent of its population following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “If that happens to Terrebonne Parish, we would have no economy to come back to,” Guidry said.

“The people need to know that all along we thought we had a federal partner with the Corps of Engineers,” Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District Board of Commissioners Chairman Tony Alford said. “Our federal partner has left us to foot the bill [and] between state and local people we are not far from completing the project. We cannot afford to complete it with the feds and we cannot afford to not complete it on our own.”

During 2001, Terrebonne Parish voters approved an existing quarter-cent sales tax to assist in levee construction and maintenance cost. Approximately $50 million has been collected from that tax since 2002. Combined with state funding it built what residents currently see in terms of levees and floodgates.

Voters rejected a second one-cent sales tax request by only 123 ballots in 2006. Levee board members said previous lack of public support came because they failed to educate the public. They hope this time both they and voters have learned their lesson.

Voters will decide on Dec. 8 whether to levy a half-cent sales tax to help locals establish a foundation for the long-awaited Morganza to the Gulf storm surge protection project. Proponents say it’s needed because the federal government has stalled progress, while skeptics wonder if the money will be spent properly.