In July of 2020 then Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert sued East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District (the District) in his personal and official capacities, including the town as a party-plaintiff. The relief he sought, a judicial declaration that the District owes “a continuing duty and obligation to clean and maintain the roadside ditches and culverts inside” Sorrento, was granted by Judge Jason Verdigets in the form of a Summary Judgment on June 4, 2021. The First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in an opinion dated April 12, 2022.
Citing language in three separate Ad Valorem tax election initiatives, along with a 1984 perpetual sales and use tax, the Court found that the District has nearly unfettered discretion with regard to how the funds generated are to be spent. The 1984 tax initiative establishes that the funds generated shall be “dedicated for the purpose of constructing, acquiring, maintaining and operating gravity and/or forced drainage facilities to drain lands” in the District. Beginning with 1998’s initial 5-mill property tax assessment, renewed in 2008 and 2018, the initiatives decalre that the taxes collected “be used entirely and exclusively to provide funds to pay the operation and maintenance costs and expenses of the drainage works of the District.”
Judge Allison Penzato wrote, “(W)e disagree with the Town that the collection of taxes alone creates an obligation for the District to clean and maintain the Town’s roadside ditches and culverts or otherwise dictates that all property, citizens, and electors must be treated equally.”
Louisiana Revised Statute 38:1764(A), and Ascension Parish Ordinance Sec. 18-30, Section 2 both recognize that the District is governed by a board of commissioners, which “shall have the power to open all natural drains in the district, to cut and open new drains, and such other work of drainage as they may deem necessary.”
In its defense the District “denied having a duty to clean and maintain the Town’s roadside ditches and culverts or a duty to treat all property and citizens within its territory equally. The District also denied that it has refused to clean and maintain the Town’s roadside ditches and culverts and, instead, asserted that the Town declined to accept the terms of its ‘offer’ to perform work in the Town. The District further asserted that it has discretionary authority to perform the work it deems necessary to accomplish its duties.”
The District also “opposed the motion for summary judgment, asserting that the trial court may not ‘override’ its discretion concerning the drainage work it chooses to perform. It also produced evidence to demonstrate that it has appropriated money to upgrade pumping stations in the Town, for a total expenditure that ‘far exceeds the tax revenue collected’ in the Town.”
The Penzato opinion addresses Sorrento’s argument.
“The Town concedes that the District has the discretion to determine which drainage works to undertake but argues that it exercised this discretion in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner, particularly considering the Town’s citizens pay taxes collected for the precise benefit they are not receiving. The trial court agreed and found that the District acted arbitrarily and unreasonably by treating the Town differently from others within its territory. However, the February 2, 2022 amended judgment does not simply order the District to cease exercising its authority in carrying out the functions for which it was created in an arbitrary and unreasonable manner. Instead, the judgment declares that the District has an affirmative duty and obligation to perform certain drainage works, i.e., clear and maintain roadside ditches and culverts. This finding is contrary to the legal authorities cited above, which clearly provide the District with discretion to determine which drainage projects to undertake.”
Procedurally, the appellate decision merely overturns the grant of Summary Judgment. Thus, the matter is back before the 23rd Judicial District Court for any further proceedings.
We suspect that none will be conducted given the tone and tenor of the First Circuit’s ruling and the fact that Mike Lambert is no longer Sorrento’s mayor.