Feds tight with Gustav money, but local ’08 sales taxes good

Deidre Cruse

The federal government is being extremely conservative in reimbursing local governments for expenses incurred because of Hurricane Gustav; but judging from sales tax collections, the local economy is strong, Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. said Tuesday.

Because of a huge amount of industrial construction, the parish had a record year for sales tax collections in 2007. For the first 10 months of last year, the parish had collected $34 million parishwide. Ourso said the new figures he had just received on October collections showed $33 million for the same period of this year.

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to exceed ’07 or be right there at it,” the parish president said. “I have some concerns about 2009.”

One bright light for next year is that Shintech Inc. is beginning to break ground for the secondphase of its development at its site south of Plaquemine, he said.

Shintech has spent about $1 billion on the first phase, which is about to come on line fully, and plans a $900 million addition here, pending state approval for environmental operating permits.

For the first time since the home rule charter form of government went into effect (11 years ago), Ourso’s office is late presenting the annual budget to the Parish Council. Parish Finance Director Randall Dunn said he was waiting for figures on federal reimbursement for Gustav expenditures.

“The state and feds have really tightened the purse strings up [since Katrina],” Ourso said. He said the government officials are extremely conservative about what they would reimburse and are demanding a great deal of accountability. “I like that, don’t get me wrong,” he added.

But, it has meant that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would not approve funding for post-hurricane debris cleanup in Bayou Plaquemine because the waterway is still navigable, Ourso said.

FEMA also has required the parish to apply to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for funds to clear debris from Bayou Grosse Tete, Bayou Paul and Bayou Tigre, a canal between white Castle and Plaquemine, he said. He said he would know after Thanksgiving if the NRCS application has been approved in Fort Worth, or whether the parish would have to go back to FEMA.

“Bayou Plaquemine is out,” the parish president said. “It won’t qualify for either FEMA or NRCS. If we get a project going, it will be totally on the parish.”

Last month, the state approved Iberville Parish for a “right of entry” program that would allow the parish to clear trees from private property when the owners do not have insurance to cover the damage, but FEMA still has not acted on the parish’s application, Ourso said.

Unless the right of entry program is approved, the debris contractor will conclude its work here around Thanksgiving, he said.

The Parish Council’s current road program, slowed down by the storm, is getting back on track, Ourso said.

On Monday, he expects to issue a notice for Coastal Bridge contractors to proceed to finish a $1.67 million leg of the program in the southern and eastern parts of the parish, he said.

The parish will have to borrow money and take bids for the final portion of the road program, about 40 miles of rural roads in the White Castle area, that are expected to cost between $4 million and $5 million.

Ourso said he did not anticipate the parish would have trouble borrowing the money.