By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
SLIDELL – In the face of continued opposition about recently initiated Economic Development Districts (EDDs) off key interstate exits on I-12, St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister is steadfastly defending that action as a vital move for the future of the parish.
Brister’s administration received approval in Oct., 2016 from the Parish Council to begin collecting a three-quarter cent sales tax at five EDDs in the parish, all linked to Interstate 12 exits where commercial development has already exploded or is expected to. The total sales tax in those areas is now 10.5 cents on the dollar.
The St. Tammany West Chamber argued at the October meeting against approving those districts at the time, asking for 30 days before a final decision would be made. Now months later the West Chamber Board of Directors has sent a letter to Brister asking her to rescind the districts since they are reporting some businesses which claim they have been negatively impacted.
Additionally, the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany (CCST) was against the additional tax from the beginning, then over a month ago District Attorney Warren Montgomery questioned the legality of the vote since it raised taxes without voter approval. Montgomery sent a letter to the Louisiana attorney general asking for a decision about whether the vote should have been allowed. He is still awaiting that ruling.
Through it all, Brister has stood firmly behind the decision for the EDDs and responded to the West Chamber with a lengthy letter explaining the vital need for this additional funding to “develop gateways into our community which would entice additional commercial development.
“My vision for St. Tammany Parish has always been to enrich our local economy to provide good, high paying jobs so our children and grandchildren can grow up here and stay here to raise their own families,” she said.
Brister said that each EDD is strategically positioned to be at the interstate exits she calls “gateways” into the parish. “These gateways are intended to be the front doors leading to the many unique communities in our parish that lie beyond the green curtain along I-12.”
Brister said the parish must take on the financial investment of economic development and infrastructure upgrades since the state of Louisiana is providing less-and-less revenue. The parish president noted that “in 12 months alone the state has vetoed or eliminated $20 million in projects for St. Tammany Parish. This is a trend that will only worsen due to the fiscal issues at the state level. St. Tammany must continue to provide for ourselves.”
The taxes can be used by the parish for a broad range of economic development-related projects anywhere in the parish, and altogether the new taxes are expected to bring in over $4 million a year.
The taxes will be collected at I-12 and La. 21 at the busy Covington shopping area, as well as Highways 1077 and 59 near Mandeville, Hwy. 1088 to the west of Covington, and Hwy. 434 at the Lacombe exit.
The West Chamber had a meeting with Brister in September to discuss their opposition to the EDDs after Board Chairman Cynthia Thompson said “our board has heard directly from business owners whose bottom line is being directly and negatively impacted….Our opposition is primarily on behalf of the businesses that are losing a competitive edge to the point of considering relocating across the parish line.”
The Chamber is still asking Brister and the Parish Council to rescind the tax and will appear at the agenda review meeting on Oct. 25 before being scheduled on the Parish Council meeting agenda for Nov. 2.
Brister noted that economic development for the parish has been among her highest priorities since taking office over seven years ago. The EDDs are not a new thing as they were initially put in place in 2008 for Rooms to Go in Pearl River, Camellia Square on Gause Boulevard and North Shore Square in Slidell, and more recently for the Fremaux Town Center in Slidell.
The newest districts most recently initiated were approved by the Parish Council in Oct., 2016 with a start-up date to collect tax money in January, 2017. Due to a request from the West Chamber, there is a 15-year sunset on the taxes that means they will expire in 2032.
Brister said the new EDD money could be used for refining the gateways and surrounding commercial areas “to ensure that the first impression of this parish to residents and visitors counts.”
The funds will also be used for infrastructure, cutting grass, picking up litter off the most travelled roads, landscaping, lighting and signage improvement. But another key component of the plan is to entice new companies to locate here, particularly those that can offer “high-paying jobs for our residents.”
Brister said that with the current population over 250,000 in the parish and projections for 50,000 more people in five years, the past efforts of public officials to create the outstanding quality of life on the North Shore has led to employment increases of over 13 percent in the last five years, and wage increases over 27 percent in that same time period.
In discussing the many amenities in the parish such as the Tammany Trace, waterway, top rated schools and low crime, she added that “without each of these key components we cannot guarantee that our community will continue to be seen as a highly desired, viable option for business and jobs.
“We are the best because we have invested wisely in our community. Without continued funding to sustain our progress as we continue to grow, our economy will stagnate and our way of life as we know it will change forever.”
Brister has also led the effort in the past year to streamline several economic development organizations in the parish, combining two with similar names to now form a single St. Tammany Development District, formerly known as the St. Tammany Parish Economic Development Foundation (STEDF).
“St. Tammany must continue to provide for ourselves as we cannot afford to rely upon state capital outlay or one time disaster funding to continue our forward-thinking objectives of resilient infrastructure, public health programs and economic growth and job creation,” she said.
“Without continued growth and expansion of our tax base, these opportunities will be fewer and farther between,” she added.
Parish officials have also been faced with replacing $22 million in sales tax money that previously came in on a half-cent jail and Justice Center tax. Those tax renewals were turned down by voters twice in the past year-and-a-half. Brister has called on the Parish Council to give the vote a third try next spring.