AP Health Unit/Mental Health combine for $16.5 million General Fund

Mental Health General Fund (2021) $10,330,010 surplus with $746,000 anticipated in 2022.

Ascension Parish Government maintains separate accounts for two seemingly related functions (neither of which should be the government’s business in our view, but we digress), Mental Health and Ascension Parish Health Center.  Both receive the lion’s share of their combined $6,917,500 in revenue anticipated from 2-mill Ad Valorem (property) tax assessments, ten years in duration which generate over $3 million annually apiece.  If $7 million/year to operate seems excessive, consider that the recently adopted 2022 budget projects a combined $16,547,264 Fund Balance (a budgetary surplus).

The Health Center (commonly referred to as the “Health Unit”) millage happens to be up for renewal on December 11.

Health Unit General Fund (2021) $4,392,477 surplus with $373,500 anticipated in 2022.

One would think, given that voters approved a separate one-mill for Ascension’s Animal Shelter operation in 2018 (see below), that the Health Unit millage might see a reduction (like the Library millage, see below).  Prior to 2019, parish Animal Services and Mosquito Control were funded through the Health Center millage (interestingly enough, the Health Unit was under the direction of Kenny Matassa prior to his winning the parish presidency in 2015).  Animal Services now has its own budget, having been removed from the Health Unit’s.

The Health Unit Fund, according to the Open Finance feature on the parish governmental website, went from $3.02 Million (in 2018) to $3.54 Million (in 2021), corresponding to collection of the Animal Services millage which generates over $1.5 million in annual revenue.

The failure to publicly discuss any of these issues is problematic, especially given the non-existent level of trust between the governing authority and its constituency.  The parish president seems to have retained some political capital, though.  Parish operations are going to be transparent, or not (notwithstanding the Open Finance feature on the parish website which is improving).

Voters, as few as possible, are asked to renew each property tax decennially and the electorate (as small as possible) rarely disappoints.  Ascension’s Council typically sets those elections on dates when turnout is expected to be small, let’s call them off-cycle elections for the sake of discussion.  Since voters opted for Home Rule on July 17, 1993, another off-cycle election by the way, the governing authority has placed nearly two dozen tax elections up for voter approval.

NOTE:  These do not include the 20 or so tax elections placed on various ballots by the School Board and other taxing entities (also off-cycle for what that’s worth).

Seven parish-wide (we include East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District) tax elections have been decided in heavy turnout (on-cycle) elections, with a .571 batting average.  EA Drainage’s 5-mills was renewed twice, most recently on November 6, 2018 when turnout was 54.6% (accompanied on the ballot by a Parish Judgeship).  67% of voters opted for renewal, a point better than October 3, 1998’s 66% approval when the tax was accompanied by School Board elections.

On November 2, 2010 two separate Ad Valorem assessments to support Ascension Parish Library were approved comfortably; 2.6 mills (69%)/4.2 mills (67%), both dedicated “for maintaining and supporting the Ascension Parish Library and its branches.”  Appearing on the same ballot as Congressional races, a healthy 47.3% turnout posed no problem to renewal.  In fact, those library millage performed better than two off-cycle elections.  It was probably unnecessary to conduct the most recent renewal, combined into one millage and reduced to 5.6 mills, off-cycle on August 15, 2020 when turnout fell off by two-thirds.

Three parish wide (on-cycle) tax initiatives failed by wide margins:

  • Better Recreation NOW!’s 5-mills could only muster 38% of the vote on November 4, 2014 when Congressional races were also on the ballot (53.8% turnout).
  • Lanes for Change, a 1/2% Sales and Use Tax for transportation fared negligibly better, garnering 43% of the vote on November 6, 2012 when turnout was 72% (Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney on the ballot too).
  • Another Presidential Election, on November 4, 2008, was accompanied by an Ascension Parish tax; 3 mills to purchase Lamar Dixon Expo Center failed with 41% of the vote (Ascension subsequently purchased it anyway).

The commonly held belief amongst the voting public is that tax elections are intentionally scheduled off-cycle to enhance the probability of electoral success.  Certain tax propositions, though (EA Drainage, Library taxes, Council on Aging…)all appear to be safe whether conducted on- or off-cycle.  We suspect the Parish Health Center and Mental Health assessments would succeed in either event, though it is hard to support them with such vast surpluses stockpiled and growing continuously.

Why leave it to chance if your on the council?

Rarely does a tax proposal fail in Ascension Parish when turnout is low.  In fact, we count a single instance; July 16, 1994’s 6-mill property tax to fund Parish Recreation which mustered 46% of the vote, almost dooming the ultra-popular Council on Aging’s 1.5 mill assessment to failure in the process.

Council on Aging tax renewals, when unaccompanied by an unpopular initiatives, roll up impressive percentages.  Compare the 1994 vote, when 52% of those 7,285 citizens exercising the franchise renewed the assessment to May 3, 2003 when pro-CoA voters comprised a sterling 87% majority (out of a paltry 1,626 total votes); and May 4, 2013 when CoA funding was renewed with a 65% majority (out of a comparatively robust 14.3% turnout-10,034 total votes).

No so, the one-mill proposal for “acquiring, constructing, improving, maintaining and operating an animal shelter for the Parish, including necessary equipment and facilities therefor.”  A month after EA Drainage’s renewal and the Parish Judgeship appeared on the ballot, the Animal Shelter mill barely won passage (51%) on December 8, 2018 when turnout dropped from 54% to 16%.

Would the Animal Shelter have been approved on November 6, 2018?  We think, not.

Would the Parish Health Center’s fail in an on-cycle election ballot?  Our guess; probably not, though it would smell an awful lot better if the measure had been publicized at all.  The ten-year duration set to expire in 2021, no election this calendar year was going to generate much turnout.  Four amendments to Louisiana’s Constitution drew 10% in November; the highly publicized April 24 vote to sell parish sewer “assets” mustered only 9.4%.