Allocation of Animal Services tax revenue leaves nobody happy

Photo of Shelter as of August 2015.

On December 8, 2018 the voters of Ascension Parish, (6,398 of them against 6,045 in opposition) approved a 1-mill, parish-wide annual property tax assessment devoted to an Animal Shelter.  Notwithstanding a commonly-held misconception among ardent supporters, the assessment is not exclusive to a new shelter with expansive language of the ballot initiative envisioning several appropriate expenditures.  The parish’s decision to upgrade the existing shelter, consistent with the ballot language, did not sit well with many who want every dollar devoted to a new facility.

The ballot measure, in full:

Shall the Parish of Ascension, State of Louisiana (the “Parish”) levy and collect a tax of one (1) mill on all property subject to taxation in the Parish (an estimated $1,300,000.00 reasonably expected at this time to be collected from the levy of the tax for an entire year) (the “Tax”), for a period of ten (10) years, beginning with the year 2019 and ending with the year 2028, for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, improving, maintaining and operating an animal shelter for the Parish, including necessary equipment and facilities therefor?

Projected to generate $1.3 million per annum, the first dollar was not collected until 2020 (from the 2019 assessment).  The actual collection exceeded the ballot projection in 2019, collections totaling $1,371,000 according to Ascension’s 2020 Budget Book, reflected in the millage reduction to .99 for 2020.

A statutorily required board to provide oversight was impaneled by Parish Council appointment, effective November 19, 2019.  Six appointed members are accompanied by a council representative to form the seven-member Animal Services Board (the Board) which first met on March 12, 2020.  Newly elected himself, Councilman Michael Mason joined six appointees who elected Sharla Roussel to the chair.

Its Bylaws declare:

“The purpose of the Ascension Parish Animal Services Board is to provide oversight, management, advice, recommendations, financial and operation reports and presentations to the Parish Council and administration on matters involving Animal Services and related issues…The ASB will have a fiduciary responsibility for the Ascension Parish Animal Services Department and ensure animal tax dollars are appropriately spent.”

At that first meeting the chair proposed a budget for the $1.3 million (=/-) expected annually.  The breakdown, according to official meeting minutes:

  • Animal Control-$303,500
  • CARA’s House-$350,000 (the same as a council-approved figure in an existing Cooperative Endeavor Agreement)
  • Repairs/Contingency-$125,000
  • New Shelter-$521,500

As to a new animal shelter, Chairwoman Roussel’s expressed goal is “save for two years, then begin building.”

All in keeping with the 2018 ballot initiative’s intent, i.e. the entire millage collection was never dedicated to a new facility to the exclusion of current operations.  Forwarded to the Parish Council Finance Committee which signed off last June, on July 16, 2020 the Council unanimously adopted an ordinance to enact the Board’s budget recommendation.

$778,500 was appropriated for items other than construction of a new shelter.  $156,500 went to salaries (because only volunteers work for free and the current shelter and Animal Control must operate every day), another $67,000 in employment benefits and FICA.  Supplies, equipment, insurance, vehicle maintenance, fuel, etc. and it adds up.

The 2021 budget is similar, with an increase in millage revenue from 2020.  Good news but no nearly sufficient to give every interested stakeholder what they desire.  Paying for a new facility and providing humane care of the existing animal population stretches 1-mill to its breaking point (even though 2020’s collection rose to $1.5 million).  CARA’s House membership registered particular angst at the Board’s June 3, 2020 meeting.

From the minutes:

“(CARA’s House President) Reagan Daniel expressed her frustration with the history of CARA’s dealings with the old Council and the new Council.  She said that the old Council told CARA’s ‘if you want more money, you have to get this tax passed.’  So CARA’s House lobbied and got the tax passed.  Now there is a new Council and President and are being told that ‘it’s all different now.’  Reagan said that the Ascension Parish Animal Control Department is short by seven Animal Control Officers by national standards.”

$1.3 million (+/-) only goes so far.  Frustration is not limited to CARA’s House as a few Board members have blown off steam too.  Two of their membership resigned in 2020 (the Council Personnel Committee recently conducted interviews to fill those vacancies).

Seven new Animal Control Officers would necessitate a doubling of its budgetary line-item.  In 2015 CARA’s House received $200,000 so the 2018 ballot measure afforded a $150,000 increase to the volunteer group.  It also included  other purposes; “acquiring, constructing, improving, maintaining and operating an animal shelter for the Parish, including necessary equipment and facilities therefor.”

Ascension Parish Government, President Clint Cointment’s administration and the Council, do not enjoy the luxury of focusing on any single goal.

The administration intends to issue an RFQ for engineering/architectural services at the beginning of 2022, after three years (one more than suggested by Board Chairman Roussel) of tax collection.  Once construction documents are approved those services will go out for bid with an eye toward breaking ground in early 2023.  Based on preliminary estimates, $2.1 million will have been banked toward new construction and the parish will save approximately $1.5 million in interest payments.

In the meantime, there are still animals in the parish’s care.  When the administration announced upgrades to the existing shelter, sorely needed improvements to humanely care for animals (and staff) housed in the interim…

Plans for new facility not made; Council approves $290,988 to renovate Animal Shelter

it was a decision well within the parish’s discretion.  Despite the furor, it was also reasonable.

In fact, it was made at the behest of the Board which engaged in multiple discussions about the facility’s state of disrepair and its repeatedly failing state inspections.  The Board, at its September 9, 2020 meeting, approved a budget amendment increasing the Emergency/Contingency budget to pay for the upgrades, not to exceed $500,000 (up from $125,000).   Animal Services Board member David Berniard, who offered the motion, recently commented on social media:

“The administration only looked at maintenance because of an Animal Services Board report on the state of the current shelter. I was called on several occasions about rain coming in and dripping from electrical fixtures, sewer backups, and other issues that indicated years of neglect. Thankfully Clint Cointment and his staff saw fit to do their own inspection. Thankfully they are not ignoring a huge problem just waiting to be a catastrophe. Humans and animals have been in danger of serious injury. Hopefully the repairs will be good enough and in time to prevent any issues.”

The Animal Services Board and Ascension Parish Government face difficult decisions.  The focus needs to be on the animals because there is no way to satisfy Ascension’s human population.