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Police jury names new public works director

The Evangeline Parish Police Jury voted to hire Dustin Vidrine as the parish’s new public works director, replacing Donald Bergeron, who will become the new secretary/treasurer October 1.

Vidrine was a quality control manager for Prairie Contractors, Inc., a major highway contractor in south Louisiana with plants in Opelousas, DeRidder and Westlake.

The police jury took about 10 minutes to take the vote September 9. Last week, during a special police jury meeting, jurors were deadlocked with tie votes after voting three times in an hour and a half.

The same four jurors voted this week as they did last week for the other candidate, former public works director Chester Granger: Lamar Johnson, Kenny Burgess, Eric Soileau and Ryan Ardoin.

Vidrine got the same votes as last week: from Bryan Vidrine, Ryan Williams, Rocky Rider and Kevin Veillon. Vidrine also got a fifth vote this week, from Richard Thomas, who was unable to attend last week’s meeting.

The issue taking up the most time for the police jury Monday involved a case being litigated in district court involving an agreement the parish made with Pine Prairie Energy (PPE) eight years ago.

An attorney representing PPE, J. Adams, asked the jurors, meeting as an annual review board to consider tax appeals, to vote to exempt the property tax. However, the jury’s legal council advised the jurors that was “beyond the scope” of the jury’s authority, which was to determine if a specific tax assessed to a taxpayer was too low or too high.

According to Industrial Development Board Chairman Dr. Tojo Ward, the issue could potentially have disastrous consequences to the economic development potential of the parish.

PPE agreed to locate in the parish in return for the property tax exemption, but since then, the exemption has been contested as unconstitutional. Tax Assessor Dirk Deville told the jurors that although he thought the agreement met legal requirements when it was adopted in 2005, his “hands were tied,” now because of the constitutionality issue. That issue was raised by an attorney specializing in law pertaining to the oil and gas industry Deville consulted years after the agreement between the parish and PPE was made.

PPE filed a lawsuit in January seeking repayment of the property taxes, which are being paid “under protest.”

The police jury’s legal advisor, attorney Greg Vidrine, advised the jurors they don’t have the authority to exempt PPE or the Industrial Development Board from paying the tax or reduce the total valuation of the property to avoid the tax.

The issue is being litigated in district court, and Judge Tom Fuselier is scheduled to begin hearing arguments on the tax exemption issue on October 9.

In the meantime, PPE has begun expanding operations in Mississippi and, according to juror Lamar Johnson, has reduced employees at the Easton facility, although there is enough natural gas storage capacity there to double its operations in Easton.

Johnson said because of the legal entanglements, the parish could also lose prospective industries to Texas, where taxes are more favorable.

He said the parish has received more than $11 million in sales taxes during the past five or six years from PPE, or as much as 50 percent of the parish’s revenues, “and now we’re asking them to pay,” at least $1 million a year more. “That’s a joke.”

Ward, the chairman of the Industrial Development Board, has said PPE also has donated at least $4 million for improvements in the community.

During the police jury meeting on Monday, Ward said if the legal issue over the tax exemption status is not resolved, the parish could lose more than PPE. He said the prospects for economic development generally in the parish would be “dead in the water.”

Ward also said the 15-year agreement between the parish and PPE was researched by attorneys for nine months before it was finalized in 2005 and the parish should continue to honor it.

In April, the police jury and the Industrial Development Board joined with PPE in its lawsuit, but as more than one juror said during the meeting on Monday, there was little more they could do. The jurors voted in favor of Johnson’s motion to “at least state we’re in their corner,” during the court proceedings.

The Industrial Development Board was created by the police jury when the tax exemption agreement with PPE was being crafted. An attorney hired by the parish to represent the Industrial Development Board, Tony Walker, also spoke to the jurors during the meeting.

Turning to other agenda items, the jurors approved of a parish-wide guideline for disposal of trees and debris, at the request of juror Soileau. Bryan Vidrine, police jury president, said property owners sometimes expect parish crews to not only clear trees and debris from parish rights-of-way, but also to burn, bury or haul them away.

Instead, the jurors voted to clear debris and stack it for the landowner to burn. If debris remains after burning, the parish will send a crew to stack it again so it can be burned a second time.

At the request of juror Burgess, the jurors voted to contact the railroad company that has a right-of-way near Pine Street in Basile to clear debris causing flooding. Burgess said the railroad has failed to respond to several calls, “and now the sewage is starting to back up” near the end of the street where the railroad tracks pass.

The police jury voted to contact the railroad company about clearing its property to improve drainage, and if the railroad still fails to correct the problem, the police jury will take legal action.

During the engineer’s report near the end of the meeting, Ronnie Landreneau briefed the jurors on two issues:

•One project involves improvements to the Evangeline Parish Industrial Park, involving the elevated water tank, as part of a lease agreement with Cameron Corporation. Landreneau said there is a time line for completing the project, which will be funded with a water enrichment grant.

•The other project involves repairs required by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to the Evangeline Parish Jail. Lamdremeau said the police jury needs to send a letter to DHH indicating a time line and price list, which Landreneau & Associates will help draft.

The police jury also passed a resolution renewing the tax levy that funds the operations of the Council on Aging; approved of juror Rider’s request to replace Pat Soileau, who resigned from the Fire Protection District 2 Board, with Hunter Soileau; and approved construction of a new 911 communications office at the industrial park.

At the end of the meeting, Vidrine, the police jury president, acknowledged it would be the last meeting that Doug Deville attends. He retires as secretary/treasurer at the end of the month. “It’s been a pleasure working with you,” Vidrine said.

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