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Caddo Parish seeks new tax come Oct. 19 election - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Caddo Parish seeks new tax come Oct. 19 election

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SHREVEPORT, La. -

Caddo Parish voters, get ready. The October 19 election is just a few weeks away. The parish commission and administration have a property tax they want continued. If voters say yes, the $23.4 million construction bond proposal would cost the owner of a $100,000 house around $ 4 a year, with a homestead exemption.

Because the current rate of taxes a property owner now pays won't go up, commissioners pitch the tax as a continuation of an existing tax. Around $30 million were approved by voters and borrowed for construction bonds back in 2007. Less than $4 million of that bond remains for the 2014 fiscal year. Among the $7.5 million in road projects: $1.3 million for a road that will service the new Bentler Steel plant.

That prompted parish administration to request for more money. The Caddo Commission to approve a new bond issue for the ballot this past spring. The capital bond request is for $23.4 million. A majority of commissioners seem just fine allowing the parish to accrue more debt, though one has different ideas for the money's use. Its intended use is to construct, improve or acquire parish roads or facilities, according to Dr. Woodrow Wilson, the parish administrator.

"The primary objective is to take care of the property that belongs directly to the people of Caddo Parish," Wilson said.

In 2007, voters approved the millage rate to be set at 1.95 percent. It's been declining since payments on the debt began, dropping to 1.75 percent in 2011. Many expect the rate will expire within the next several months. By approving the new bond request, voters will extend the rate, continuing the tax. However, the rate won't rise but remain at 1.75 percent.

Some Republican commissioners haven't fought taking on more debt like their counterparts on the national stage in Washington. There have been a few worries about how the money, if approved, will be spent. Those were quickly resolved. Republican John Escude, the District 8 commissioner, says he approves the debt because Caddo Parish government actually works.

"Caddo Parish government functions at a time that very few function," Escude said. "We spend the money we're given responsibly. We're good stewards of the money."

There's evidence to back Escude's claims. Caddo Parish has proved it can pay its bills and was awarded a Triple A bond rating by Standards and Poor's last year. That's allowing the bond to be borrowed on an interest rate less than two percent. The parish has currently saved more than $40 million dollars in a reserve fund and around $17 million in an oil and gas fund. Escude says the low interest rate makes borrowing money more attractive than spending the savings. He and others believe keeping the money makes parish spending more flexible. They're able to fund other non-capital projects. Those for, say, economic development, like road infrastructure for Benteler Steele's new plant at the Port of Shreveport-Bossier and more.

"The state keeps cutting the funding. Classic example is what we're doing up in Vivian and Oil City, with getting the water to the interchanges on I-49," Escude said. "The state funded it, an eight inch line. An eight inch line doesn't encourage development. So, we're putting in our resources to make a 12 inch line, so we can have industry and commerce up there."

The bond money will be used solely to fund capital outlay projects. To find which parish properties need the most attention, parish administration and commissioners meet with the heads of various departments, from Caddo Animal Control to parks and recreation, in what Administrator Wilson calls retreats. A list of needed or anticipated improvements is drawn up with the most important first in line for funds. More than $8 million worth of projects have been appropriated for 2014. More have been left to wait for funding in the coming years.

"Anywhere from 50 to 75 projects but this is going to be over a 5 year period," Wilson said.

For next year, courtroom renovations and other projects at the juvenile justice complex have been approved. Those projects total up to $591,000. Lighting upgrades, landscaping renovations, security system upgrades and more have been approved for the Caddo Parish Courthouse. Those tally up to $365,000.

Future projects include added improvements to the vacant Selber Building in downtown Shreveport. Wilson says the old shopping destination needs elevators. The parish has already spent hundreds of thousands to clean the place up and replace its failing roof. Hope is to attract an occupant to move into the building and create jobs.

"It's not currently occupied but we have programmed the replacement of that elevator since we own the facility. We're trying to get it in use," Wilson said.

Caddo Commissioner Lyndon Johnson has a different idea for the bond cash. While he recognizes the need to maintain and improve the parish's facilities, Johnson thinks voters should have input on how the money is spent. He plans to ask his constituents for their opinions.

"Because, you are having the residents of Caddo Parish to fund this deal through taxes," Johnson said. "So, it seems you would have some kind of input from the community on some ideas that they'll want to see, as far as our facilities and buildings. That's what the tax is all about."

Johnson has his own ideas of where the money should be spent. He wishes to join with other entities in funding improvements to facilities and infrastructure around the parish. Those include parks and even the state fairgrounds.

"Going into a joint venture with the city; going into a joint venture with the fair grounds to enhance some of the other facilities that's not owned by the parish," Johnson said.

Wilson stresses that the capital bond money will be stretched thin. The parish plans to spend about $4 million a year for the next five years. Projects are listed in a graded fashion from most importance to least importance. Departments must via for their projects to be completed with the given funds. Even then, unexpected expenses could drain away funding.

"Because, every year we unforeseen capital needs that come in," Wilson said. "We have major system failures that would pre-empt anything on our five year list."

The October 19 election falls on a Saturday. Polls open at seven that morning and close at eight that night. Early voting begins on Oct.5 and ends on Oct. 12. 

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