Ascension sheriff gives nod for property tax exemptions to two code-name projects, mulling two others

October 28, 2017 GMT

GONZALES — Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said he has agreed to the full, eight-year industrial tax exemption for two of the four companies planning $462 million in combined industrial construction in the parish.

But he said he wants more information on the sales tax impact of the final two projects before he makes a decision and added that, in the future, he wants to develop a table with other local leaders that lays out the level of incentives they are willing to offer for new industry and expansions.

“Let us figure out a way to do this that makes sense to almost everybody. What doesn’t make sense to almost everybody is rubber-stamping it. I agree with that,” Wiley said Thursday.

Under an executive order last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards reduced the value of the state incentives and ordered that sheriffs, parish or municipal governments and school boards weigh in on the proposed industrial tax exemption incentives before he would agree to grant them. For decades previously, the exemptions from local property taxes that would have gone to schools, roads and law enforcement were handled exclusively by the state and made without local input.

All four projects in Ascension have generated controversy in recent weeks as community activists challenged the secrecy under which the Parish Council and School Board previously recommended the full property tax breaks worth a combined $48 million to $55 million from all taxing jurisdictions over eight years. Though meeting and voting in public, the Parish Council and School Board did not identify the private companies, referring to them only by code names.

Together Ascension and Together Louisiana members sued the parish, in part, over allegations the Parish Council failed to identify the companies in public before its vote and violated the open meetings law. The plaintiffs want a court to void the decisions. A hearing has been set for 9 a.m. Nov. 20 before Judge Tess Stromberg of the 23rd Judicial District Court.

On Thursday, Wiley gave his nod to the full exemption for the code-named Project Bagel. Wiley said property taxes given up by his agency from the future exemption on the $125 million project have been estimated at $1.7 million over eight years. He said he expects the sales tax boost from construction and equipping of the plant would offset that incentive. The project will create 15 permanent jobs.

“I became aware of the Project Bagel site, and due to the significant contribution to the parish over and above the jobs and revenue, it was an easy decision for me to make to invest in them to the fullest extent,” Wiley said.

Wiley, who knew the company behind Project Bagel, did not identify it but said the business is a major property taxpayer and employer in the parish.

He added that he previously granted the same full exemption to the code-name Project Sunflower-Sunflower Seed. An Advocate estimate shows that exemption will likely cost Wiley’s office another $2.1 million over eight years.

Parish officials have previously disclosed that one of the two companies involved in Sunflower-Sunflower Seed is BASF, which would allow another company to co-locate at the German chemical manufacturer’s huge Geismar campus along the Mississippi River.

On Wednesday, Praxair announced it would build a new syngas plant at BASF to make high-purity carbon monoxide and hydrogen for its industrial customers.

Estimates for the value of the project vary. Ascension’s economic development arm put the combined investment from both companies at $167 million, $32 million by BASF and $135 million by the unnamed company. The Praxair announcement left indications the company would spend close to $150 million on the project.

Wiley’s nods clear the way for both projects to get a final blessing from the state and Gov. Edwards.

Project Magnolia, a new plant that would bring seven jobs and a $145 million investment, and Project Zinnia, a “first of its kind” demonstration plant with two jobs and a $25 million investment, have been approved by the parish and School Board but are still under review by the sheriff.

Local governments, including in heavily industrialized Ascension, where the petrochemical industry is a major employer, taxpayer and community benefactor, are still sorting out how to handle the new responsibility passed on by the governor. East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has created a special committee to create a “matrix” to help decide on future exemptions in the parish and then vet applications.

Edwards’ changes also cut out some smaller exemptions on primarily maintenance projects and reduced the value of exemptions available for expansions and new facilities.

New and expanded plants can now get a 100 percent exemption for five years and can seek an 80 percent exemption renewal for the next three years. Before Edwards’ order, industrial manufacturers received two five-year exemptions for 100 percent of the value of plant equipment and infrastructure.

Wiley said Thursday he is mulling a further reduction from even the governor’s new, lower maximum exemption. Wiley said after the four that he is currently considering, he might split the property tax revenue from future projects 50-50 — half going to his agency, half in property tax exemptions for the company.

He noted he does the same split with sales tax collections after municipal annexations into unincorporated Ascension, recognizing that both his agency and the municipalities need revenue. Wiley said he likes the simplicity and consistency of the concept, and if it causes some plants not to locate in Ascension, then it just does, he said.

The sheriff added he is a pro-business guy but said pro-business guys aren’t “idiots.”

“A pro-business guy is a guy who knows a little bit about business, too,” he said.