’08 busy for Iberville, but Gustav took prize

Deidre Cruse
Nearly every home and business in Iberville Parish felt some sort of effect from Hurricane Gustav, which ravaged south Louisiana on Sept. 1. A canopy at a local convenient store was among the structures destroyed in the storm.

Iberville Parish reaped new landmarks, new school taxes, new education programs and new cultural  events, but the heavy winds  Hurricane Gustav blew away all other contenders for the top story of 2008.

Here is the POST/SOUTH’s pick of the top ten news stories of the year:

#1 Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane Gustav damaged 90 percent of the structures in Iberville Parish and knocked out power to all 32,000 residents on September 1 as it cut a swath of destruction through the center of the state through the area.

Most officials agree it was the worst storm in the parish’s history.

Twelve days later, the outer bands of Hurricane Ike did little damage, but slowed the recovery from Gustav, a massive project that has dominated the last four months of the year for local governments and for many residents, as well.

The ubiquitous blue tarps, some still in place, blanketed roofs in testament to the damage. Debris clean-up, now nearly complete, by a parish contractor has cost nearly $5 million. Piles of felled trees and construction debris lined roadways for weeks.

Ferry service was suspended for nearly three months after the storm damaged ferryboats and landings alike. In the swollen waters of the Intracoastal Canal, a cargo barge knocked out the Bayou Sorrel Bridge, leaving more than 144 households strand on the island side.

Besides the reconstruction of the electrical systems, officials had to deal with water problems. The City of Plaquemine nearly lost its service on the night of the storm when an uprooted tree split a water main.

The storm stirred up leaves and trees from the bottom of the Grand River, where the treatment plant for Water District #3 is located; customers had safe drinking water, but it was smelly and bad tasting. The disturbance of the waterways also set off massive fish kills around the parish.

The crazy weather didn’t stop there. The parish had a rare snow storm on December 11.

#2 School Tax

Iberville Parish voters approved a massive 31-mill property tax for the Iberville Parish School System, a levy that Tax Assessor James H. “Jimmy” Dupont is the largest ever approved.

Half the tax is dedicated to raises for parish school employees, who now are among the highest paid in the state. The other half is dedicated to a $40 million construction program, that includes two schools to house the new Math, Science and Arts Academies on the east and west banks of the Mississippi, and to needed improvements at the parish’s other schools.

Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr., who proposed the tax, said he wanted an infusion of cash to help him “defibrillate” the school system and make it among the best in the state.

Only third of parish voters turned out for the election last February. A heavy turnout of school employees and their families for early voting put the tax proposition over the top.

The levy was on the property tax bills that went out three weeks ago. The tax bills also reflected the increases in assessed valuation from the mandated four-year reassessment of all property in the parish.

When the tax was passed school officials said it would produce $10.5 million a year, or at least $210 million over its 20-year duration.

#3 Economy

The tax notices showing a 63 percent increase in school taxes were especially unwelcome amid news of the downturn in the national economy.

Last summer, business, industry and individual drivers were hit hard by gasoline prices hovering around $4 a gallon, driving the cost of food, as well as other goods and services, upward.

The national housing and credit crises so far seem to have had little effect on the local economy. Revenues from parish sales taxes have remained strong, nearly equal to the record year of 2007.

The jobless rate, however, has been making a slow climb over the past year, from 4.8 percent last December to 7.2 percent in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

The employment picture darkened last month when Dow Chemical, the parish’s largest employer and taxpayer, announced it would close one of its 28 units here, along with a feeder facility, and laid off most of its 1,500 contract employees until January 5.

Shintech Inc. apparently intends to continue with the second phase of construction at its already $1 billion polyvinyl chloride plant south of Plaquemine, and officials are optimistic about attracting a smaller plant to the area in 2009.

#4 New Landmark

The Iberville Parish Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated with much fanfare in Veterans Day Ceremonies in November. More than 700 people turned out for the event, which included a fly-over by two F-15 fighter jets and performances by Army and Marine Corps bands.

The honor for the parish’s service men and women was the most notable of public construction projects in 2008, which also included a new building for the Council on Aging in Plaquemine, a new skateboard park at Plaquemine’s City Park and the start of a new welcome center on I-10 in Grosse Tete.

Even before the Veteran’s Memorial was opened, it had won a prestigious design aware from the Louisiana Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Earlier in the year, the Louisiana Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects honored Plaquemine’s Waterfront  Park with a Merit Award.

#5 Elections

While statewide voters went for Republican presidential nominee John McCain, well over half Iberville Parish voters backed Barack Obama’s historic bid to become the first African American president.

A record 2,012 voters cast early ballots in the November 4 election, and more than 77 percent of the parish’s 21,220 voters turned out, indicating the high interest.

In local elections, incumbents romped, many of them elected without opposition in the fall municipal elections. Mayors Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta of Plaquemine, Lawrence “Football” Badeaux of Rosedale and Michael Chauffe of Grosse Tete won re-election, as did the entire Plaquemine Board of Selectmen. The Grosse Tete and Rosedale boards of aldermen will have one new member each.

A special election to replace Richard Baker as 6th District Congressman went the distance last spring, with Democrat Don Cazayoux of New Roads emerging  as the winner of the round of first and second primaries, and general election. Cazayoux lost his id for a full term, when his Democratic primary run-off opponent ran as an independent and sheared enough votes away from Cazayoux to award the fall election to Republican state Sen. William “Bill” Cassidy.

#6 Academy Program

The Iberville Parish Public School System entered a new era  with the opening last of two new Math, Science and Arts Academies offering enhanced education for college-bound students.

The academy program also was designed to draw students from private and parochial schools back to the public school system. Interest was so high that school officials doubled the number of classrooms at the Westside academy.

The program started 261 seventh, eighth and ninth grade students, either chosen by lottery or because they were in the gifted and talented program, and will be expanded each year until the schools are full K-12 schools.

The students each were issued a laptop computer as an aid to their education. They also have access to such amenities as state-of-the-art math and science labs, as well as art, dance and orchestra classes

The Eastside school currently is housed in temporary quarters on the St. Gabriel Community Center site. The School Board recently approved the purchase of land adjacent to the site for a new school. The Westside campus is located at E. J. Gay School, where facilities might be expanded in lieu of building a new school.

#7 City Light

High electricity bills heated up the City of Plaquemine’s mayoral election this fall.

High natural gas costs and high usage during the summer heat created unrest just ahead of the October election, culminating in a rally of about 60 people in front of City Hall.

City Light & Water worked to put customers on payment plans to catch up on their bills. Many, however, failed to keep up with the payments, which meant the backlog plus the current bill came due at once. Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta, who narrowly won a fifth term, said that was the reason some customers had bills as high as $1,200 or $1,400.

City officials waived late fees for three months. Entergy, the city’s nearest competitor in the area, spread out its natural gas costs over four months. Gulotta said he wished he’d thought of that.

#8 Cultural Start-Ups

The Iberville Museum produced the first of its “People of Iberville” exhibits, a series of on the cultures that have influence the parish’s development – the “Italians of Iberville” and the “Spanish of Iberville.”

Promotion and Preservation of Iberville took up the spirit by festooning Plaquemine city banners celebrating various ethnic groups. Chairman Sue G. Hebert said the heritage banners were intended to start family conversations and research into their ancestry.

The museum’s lengthy series of exhibits will continue this year with exhibits on African Americans and Germans.

After a 10-year absence, Plaquemine Selectman Jimmie Randle spearheaded the return of “Gospel Fest,” a music and inspirational event. Churches and musical group from the area joined in the celebration at the Bayou Plaquemine Waterfront Park.

#9 Pollution

Despite a slight improvement, for a second year the air quality in Iberville Parish got an “F” for ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air: 2008” report.

Iberville and four other Baton Rouge area parishes have never attained federal standards for ozone pollution. Baton Rouge ranked as the nation’s 10th most ozone-polluted city, the Lung Association said.

Additionally, Iberville ranked seventh in the state for chronic health risk based on the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI). The risks cited included releases of toxic chemicals, the toxicity of the chemicals and transportation of chemicals through the parish.

#10 Racino

Local officials had high hopes for a $110 million racetrack and slot machine development.

The “Racino” would have meant the creation of 1,000 construction jobs initially, and also offered the possibilities of a tax boon for St. Gabriel and the development of a horsebreeding industry.

State Rep. Karen St. Germain and state Sen. Rob Marionneaux were successful in getting legislative approval of a bill that would have allowed Iberville Parish voters to decide whether they wanted the facility to locate here. Gov. Bobby Jindal, however, vetoed the legislation, and without consulting the local delegation, St. Germain said.