Biggest Recreation Budget in Ascension history unveiled. Is it enough?

With $10 million federal dollars from the COVID-justified American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Ascension Parish’s Recreation Department will be flusher with cash than ever before.  Originally budgeting $4,736,000 for Culture & Recreation in the 2023 Operating Budget, the Capital Project Budget for the category included $14,400,000 according to the packet included for Parish Council consideration at its November 17, 2022 meeting. The $10 million federal cash infusion is earmarked for capital projects.

Insufficient according to one Prairieville council member who unsuccessfully moved to transfer $325,000 to Recreation from the parish’s Communications Budget.

NOTE:  The 2023 Communications budget is $1,037,000.  Exceeding half-a-million in 2019, the last year of Kenny Matassa’s only term in office, the Communications allocation had increased to $780,500 when the Council approved the 2022 Budget, later amended to $961,00.  The increase is attributed, in large part, to additional personnel.

From 2023 Budget Book

“I’ve always been very concerned about recreation, and I think there are opportunities there,” Councilman Aaron Lawler rationalized after a rambling three-minute preamble.  “I’d like to increase the Recreation budget.”

Considering the lack of dedicated funding for the department, the budget’s Recreation allocation seems pretty healthy.  It relies on 10% of the amount left over from the 1% Sales and Use Tax District No. 1 after allocation to “the General Fund, the Road & Bridge Fund, and the Criminal Court Fund, in an amount necessary to maintain a balanced fund.”  The other 90% goes for road improvements, historically.

After a lengthy tenure in the Transportation Committee chair, Lawler was appointed to head up the Recreation Committee by newly-minted Council Chairman Chase Melancon in January; a real headscratcher.  It should come as little surprise that he would seek every dollar available for Recreation, first coming into public view to lobby for Better Recreation NOW!’s failed 5- mill property tax rejected by 62% of Ascension’s voters on November 4, 2014.  Lawler even dressed up one of his kids in full soccer regalia to make the case during one council meeting.

His push to transfer Communications money made little sense, though.  It would have had some basis in logic if not for the fact that the Finance Department recommended a $1 million decrease in Recreation’s Operating Budget due to a lack of “capacity.”  CFO Patrick Goldsmith explained that the budget “is going to go down to $3.7 million” because “capacity just wasn’t there to get the work done.”

“That’s why you see a reduction of $1 million for the current year,” Goldsmith concluded.  “Because it is not going to be spent…In addition, we’ve added $10 million to the Parks Construction Fund from (the American Rescue Plan) money…We’ve got so many projects already underway that I worry about the capacity issue.”

If the Recreation Department will not be able to spend $4,730,000 in 2023, what sense does it make to increase the Operating Budget to $5,061,000 for the current fiscal year?  Which is a different discussion than whether the Communications budget should be reduced, Lawler’s actual purpose as he continues to denigrate the current administration.

“(The Communications Budget) has really gotten much larger over the past two to three years,” Lawler noted, recalling a hymn he supposedly sang in church as a youth (a sure sign of hucksterism).  “People already know that we’re doing drainage work.  People already know that we’re doing transportation work,” he argued for the $325,000 Communications reduction.

We encourage Chairman Melancon to explain these appointments, especially for the Recreation chair.

Do they?

“I’m all for finding extra money for Recreation,” soon to be Council Chairman Chase Melancon replied.  “As a millennial I think it’s exceptional that we are active on social media…(adding that) parish videos are highly viewed” by the public.

After a testy tete-a-tete between them, Lawler refocused his criticism on the administration.

“This communications budget is about getting reelected, ‘Hey, let’s show everybody what we’re doing.’  I’d rather show people we’re doing things, and building things, and getting things done,” the District 7 councilman, who claims to be a seasoned attorney used to arguing in court, got lost in his own rhetorical flourish.

Ultimately, Lawler’s motion would fail…

with council cohorts, Alvin “Coach” Thomas and Dal Waguespack, the only support he could muster.  A curious confederacy of councilmen, indeed.

NOTE: Lawler and Waguespack would support Councilman Thomas’ successful bid for the governing authority’s Vice Chairmanship on January 5.  Lawler initially voted for Councilman John Cagnolatti who received five votes against Thomas’ five (Dempsey Lambert was absent).  Lawler switched sides on the second ballot to give Thomas the Vice Chairmanship.  Certain of Cagnolatti’s colleagues informed that the outgoing Council Chair was “distraught” at being rebuffed in favor of Thomas…Priceless.

Lost in the Lawler kerfuffle, was the matter of how to spend the largest pot of recreation money in Ascension Parish history.

“We have outgrown all of our parks,” opined Councilman Dempsey Lambert who argued for the acquisition of “new property to expand our parks.  Mr. Lawler’s ($325,000), it’s not even gonna touch the tip of what we got here.”

How that is feasible without a dedicated revenue source, i.e. a new tax dedicated for the purpose, is a mystery.  In the interim Recreation Director Michael King and Director of Planning & Facilities Ricky Compton “are working on a plan…trying to look at everything from a holistic standpoint” according to CFO Goldsmith.