Travis Turner/Todd Lambert feud over gym funding leads to accusation of council deal-cutting

Last week Ascension’s Council voted 8-3 to allocate $3 million for recreation projects, most of which is earmarked for “a second gym” at Lamar Dixon Expo Center.  Eschewing a proposal to bond the money out, it will be loaned from Ascension Parish Government’s general fund and repaid from 25% of anticipated annual surplus until the Recreation Department pays it all back.  It was another last minute decision which caught multiple council members by surprise, and touched off a rancorous back and forth between two of the body’s more decorous members.

Councilman Todd Lambert took issue with allocating such a sum to a single project when all of the parish’s parks located somewhere other than Lamar Dixon are in poor shape.

“I’m kind of upset that we’re going to use close to $3 million, a loan out of the general fund, to fund this gym,” admitted the District 9 Councilman; explaining that he would prioritize upgrades to 20 other parks “before we add a gym where no one can tell me why it’s needed.”

After a mini-skirmish between Councilmen Oliver Joseph and Daniel “Doc” Satterlee over proper budgetary procedure, the Finance Department’s Dawn Caballero explained how the allocation had arisen.

Someone, or some body decided it wise to make the in-house loan to avoid interest since the parish enjoys a budget surplus.  10% of that annual surplus, anticipated to be around $300,000 annually, will retire Recreation’s debt to the general fund in a decade or so.  According to Caballero 2019’s Budget Book (adopted in November) included the $3 million loan but without itemizing any particular project.

“Once the Recreation Committee and administration figured out exactly which projects they wanted to do, that’s when the specific line items are being amended in the budget,” she explained the necessity to amend the budget last week.

Apparently, the committee and administration failed to spread the word to the rest of the Council.  Todd Lambert was joined by Satterlee and Benny Johnson in the minority, urging traffic, drainage and sewer as priorities that should take precedence over the $3 million unnecessary gym.  Which spurred Councilman Travis Turner to attack.

Turner’s council docility is a running joke among his colleagues but there’s one area of parish governance sure to quicken his pulse and perk up his ears.  His chairmanship of Recreation is no accident.

“I don’t recall you making this argument when the soccer fields were getting done,” he questioned Todd Lambert’s motives.  “What’s the difference between the soccer fields and the gym?  Because you didn’t say anything (then).”

Lambert’s reply, ignoring Chairwoman Teri Casso’s attempts to rein it all in, recalled the August 17, 2017 pitch by Lamar Dixon’s General Manager Kyle Rogers who touted revenues generated by corporate sponsorship.  One day earlier, at a Special Meeting of the Travis Turner-chaired Recreation Committee, he predicted $350,000 in annual marketing revenue; $180,000 generated by advertising signs, $70,000 in naming rights for seven fields, and $100,000 for some sponsor to slap its logo on the complex.

The Council approved a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement whereby the parish would split those revenues 80/20% with Gonzales Soccer Club (GSC) receiving the 20%.  GSC got control of the fields in in return for taking over maintenance responsibilities and the parish would receive $5/every GSC registrant.

Lambert claimed to have “opposed…the soccer fields” acceding to the agreement because of “funding back from (GSC).”  But he was not going away that meekly.

“I’m understanding from a previous, and this is coming from a reliable source, that this was promised; if the soccer fields get built, you’d get your gym.  This was a deal cut back in the day,” Lambert volleyed.

“Well, I don’t know anything about that,” Turner returned serve.  “Please tell me why you weren’t opposed to the  soccer fields.  What follow up have you done because you’re the fiscal eagle?”

Lambert would concede that “we are not getting the funds we were supposed to get from (GSC)” pursuant to the 2017 Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, at which point the chair had to call a halt to the joust.

“This is a discussion that needs to be had in sidebar,” Teri Casso struck a blow for secrecy and withholding inconvenient truths from the people.

That other Recreation maven on the Council, Aaron Lawler had to throw any observer off the scent.  He went off on a rant so mystifyingly confused as to require repeated viewings (luckily, your writer DVRed the meeting since it has not been posted on  YouTube yet), and a Venn Diagram, to  understand.