Prevost Hospital tax reduction on November ballot after 5-3 Council vote

If ever there was an Ascension Parish Council meeting that should have been held in Donaldsonville it was Monday’s single-item Special Meeting to consider a ballot measure to reduce the perpetual 1/2% sales tax funding Prevost Hospital by half.  Enacted by west bank Ascension voters in 1980 without a sunset provision, Louisiana’s legislature instructed the West Ascension Hospital Service District to call a November 6, 2018 election and the Hospital District forwarded the request to the parish governing authority, apparently, against its will.  Five council votes was sufficient to adopt the resolution on Monday when three members were absent.

The battle over Prevost’s funding can be traced back to mid-2016 when the Council created West Ascension Recreation Facilities District No. 1 without objection; and without a funding mechanism.  Donaldsonville Councilman Oliver Joseph, having pushed the ordinance through committee and the Council, came back in February 2017 with a plan to fund west bank recreation, the idea being to halve the current 1/2% sales tax and divert funds to recreation.

On February 2, 2017 the Council voted 8-3 for a ballot initiative “to redistribute the current one half percent sales and use tax dedicated to the West Ascension Hospital Service District as follows: 50% of the 1/2% sales and use tax to be provided to the West Ascension Hospital Services District, and 50% of the 1/2% sales and use tax to be provided to the West Ascension Recreation Facilities District #1.”  The measure drew spirited resistance from supporters of Prevost Hospital led by its administrator, Vince Catalda.

All for naught, as it happened, since two tax-related measures, one to reduce the hospital district dedication down to 1/4% and shift it recreation, cannot appear on the same ballot measure and, likewise, not in the same piece of legislation.

The solution, have soon to be former State Representative Ed Price (he was elevated to Louisiana’s upper legislative chamber in a 2017 Special Election) file companion bills to effectuate the tax-splitting resolution’s objective. House Bill 56, which was signed into law as Act 330 on June 22, 2017, authorized an election to reduce the hospital’s sales tax to 1/4%; and “to submit the proposition to the voters no later than the congressional primary election in 2018.”

The House passed HB 56 with the following verbiage intact:

“…any sales and use tax authorized under the provisions of this Section may be levied in addition to any other sales and use tax levied by any other political subdivision under the provisions of Article VI, Section 29(A) of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 whether or not its imposition causes the total sales and use taxes collected within any local governmental subdivision, exclusive of state sales and use taxes, to exceed three percent.”

At Monday’s Special Meeting the Hospital District was represented by its own legal counsel, Randy Robert.

“(This) resolution was placed before you for one reason, and one reason only,” Robert said.  “(The Hospital District) has been mandated by the Louisiana Legislature to do so.  It’s legislation that has been spearheaded by certain members of this council.”

Robert went on to claim that a member of the District “has been threatened with criminal charges for malfeasance” in office without identifying the target or the threat maker.  He asserted the District’s belief that cutting the sales tax in half will “jeopardize the long-term survival of (Prevost) Hospital” and healthcare of west bank citizens who have relied on Prevost for 60 years.

Councilman Joseph took issue with the argument that his constituents would be deprived of necessary healthcare, noting a $20 million Hospital Board surplus with $1.2 million being generated annually from the existing sales tax.  It was that other Council champion of recreation, Aaron Lawler, who went on the attack.  Reviving a factoid from an earlier discussion, that bathroom doors in Prevost cannot accommodate wheelchairs, it was classic Lawler.

“Millions of dollars sitting in the bank and you can’t widen a door?  That’s pitiful,” the Prairieville politico pontificated to no one in particular.  “The people of Donaldsonville and the west bank, I think they’re the best to decide whether or not they’re getting the services that they’re paying for…If they want to vote on this, they can vote on it.  I have no problem allowing them the right to vote.”

Which is one way to frame the debate.  Chairman Bill Dawson noted that only residents aged 55 or older ever enjoyed the opportunity to cast such a vote since the perpetual sales tax was approved in 1980 without a sunset provision.

Three of their colleagues (Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, Randy Clouatre, and Todd Lambert) were not convinced.  Joseph, Lawler, and Dawson were joined by Travis Turner and Demspey Lambert in the majority.

Teri Casso, John Cagnolatti, and Benny Johnson were absent.