With the long-awaited Comite Diversion Canal Project underway following the federal government allocating $343 million for its completion, this question has been making the rounds: What happens to the local tax dollars collected for the project over the past two decades and going forward?
The 2.41-mill property tax for the Comite project—paid by property owners in “benefit areas” of East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes—is set to expire, barring renewal, at the end of next year. The tax, which generates about $2.7 million annually, was first passed in 2000 and renewed in 2010 for another 10 years.
Given that the federal government has now agreed to fund the Comite project, though, could those local dollars be diverted to some other project, such as city-parish’s search for $2 million a year to match the $255 million in federal funds earmarked for badly-needed drainage projects in East Baton Rouge?
In short, no.
Most of the local dollars have already been spent on work related to the Comite project, such as right-of-way acquisitions. There is, however, about $5.1 million sitting in the bank, with one more year left to collect on the tax, says Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, which levies the tax.
But the remaining money is still needed to supplement funding for the Comite, Dietmar says, because it’s not likely that the lump sum provided by the federal government will cover all expenses of the years-long project, which could escalate over time.
“People think it’s fully funded, but chances are the project may cost more than what is allocated,” he says. “In reality, the price might go up. What do we do if we find ourselves in that situation? We use local and state funds.”
Also, by law, the tax dollars are dedicated solely to the Comite project, meaning they legally cannot be diverted to other projects.
Whether the tax will be renewed in 2020 remains unclear, Dietmar says. If so, it will probably have to be dedicated to something else, perhaps maintenance of the Comite Diversion Canal or some other basin project.
Could the tax be renewed in order to fund a local match for the $255 million federal dollars? It’s possible but highly unlikely to pass a vote. The Comite taxing district covers a part of East Baton Rouge, but also parts of Ascension and Livingston, whose voters probably wouldn’t want to fund projects based in Baton Rouge.
“We need to look at other parishes, too, and figured out how to coordinate,” Dietmar says. “There’s going to be a lot of discussion (over a potential tax renewal), not just with the commission but with the parishes involved.”