Iberville Parish has experienced tremendous growth during Mitchell Ourso’s two-decade tenure
While the decision to run for to become the first parish president as Iberville Parish made the change from a police jury to a home rule charter form of government was not an easy one for Mitchell Ourso Jr., he’s known since he made it, he made the right choice.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do even though I knew it was going to be a tough job,” he said. “I came from a small business with four or five employees and I now have over 100.”
The economies of scale only begin with the number of people Ourso supervises. He’s seen the parish’s budget grow from about $25 million when he took office in 1997 “and now we’re dealing with a budget of $40 to $45 million.”
“We’ve been blessed here in the parish with a great deal of industry,” Ourso said, and Iberville added two major ones right after he took office, Shintech Inc., which is the largest producer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the United States, and it attracted to the parish one of its biggest customers, Diamond Plastics Corp.
“So now you really see something that was manufactured and started here in Iberville Parish at Shintech and you see the finished product go out from one of their customers here in the parish, Diamond Plastics,” he said.
Several other industries have since built plants in Iberville Parish, giving it one of the biggest tax bases in south Louisiana. “We have been pretty blessed with our industrial base here,” Ourso said.
He’s also been pretty blessed when it’s come to the seven elections he’s faced during his time in office. Ourso won the first when the parish was in the process of making the transition to a parish council, and five other elections have been for reelection.
His terms in office have not been a bed of roses, though. Hurricane Gustav caused a crisis for Iberville Parish when by taking its only hospital out of commission.
“I would have to say my biggest challenge was our hospital that had been in Plaquemine for a number of years, River West Medical Center, when Gustav came through here in 2008,” Ourso said.
He said the hospital was already struggling financially when the storm hit and ripped off its roof. The building was owned by an out-of-state company that “bailed out and left us with an empty hospital and no medical care here.”
“We tried everything to get DHH (the state Department of Health and Hospitals) to make the payroll, but that didn’t work,” Ourso said. “…Here we are in aparish with 33,000 people in it – most of them on the west side of the river – and no medical facility.”
“There were a lot of people scared without any medical hospital here, no emergency facilities,” he continued.
“There were signs all over Plaquemine, ‘Save Our Hospital,’ and I did try to save it,” Ourso continued. “The Parish Council spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars trying to keep it open. It just never gained any traction.”
Gustav and another hurricane no long afterward, Ike, became blessings in disguise.
“We were blessed in that we got Gustav and Ike funds here to the tune of $44 million, mainly because Gustav hit here so hard,” Ourso said. “Iberville Parish sustained the third most damage in the state of Louisiana.”
About $19 million of that federal money went to the parish’s municipalities, “based on damage assessments” in each of the parish’s five incorporated communities.
“We were able to use the parish’s share of that $44 million, $25 million, because of the damage in the unincorporated areas of the parish,” Ourso said. “Dealing with the state and federal governments, we were fortunate enough that we could use this money to create a ‘green field site’ and build another medical facility.
“We were very lucky in that during the process of building it, we connected with a good partner, Oschner (Medical Center) and now we have an emergency and a clinic here,” he continued. “Oschner took a chance on us.”
“Getting Oschner here was not only the biggest challenge the parish has faced in my 20 years, but the biggest accomplishment was getting that facility open here,” Ourso said.
“To bring healthcare back to Iberville and have a good partner and they’re doing well was monumental,” he continued.
“I’m also proud that we’ve built new roads in the parish, we have built another bridge to connect two areas of the parish that needed it and we’ve built another bridge across Bayou Plaquemine,” Ourso said. “Those things are big, but bringing Oschner here was huge.”
“It makes me feel good when somebody tells me, ‘Thank you for getting Oschner here. I would’ve have died or my parent would’ve died if Oschner hadn’t been here,’” he said.
“Everybody thinks my job is just roads, drainage, bridges, sewer, water and gas,” Ourso continued. “It’s a lot more than that. The safety and welfare of my people here in Iberville Parish is also a big responsibility.”
He listed numerous other improvements that have come about in Iberville since he became parish president – providing new services, establishing a Council on Aging, new roads, community centers, bridges and the new health unit – but said none of it could’ve been accomplished without the support of his council and the watchful eye of his chief financial officer.
“I have to depend on Randall Dunn,” Ourso said. “I have to guard the bank and I can’t do anything that would put this in the parish that would cause us to lost the AAA rating we’ve earned.”
“Randall gives me what I need, not what I want,” he continued. “We have to guard the bank and protect the assets of the parish.”
Despite all of the progress made in the parish in the past two decades, the longtime parish president says he’s not finished with his work, not finished making his mark on Iberville Parish.
“We have industry, we have a good tax base and we are so very blessed, however we are lacking one thing and that is a bridge,” Ourso said.
He announced during the exclusive interview he intended to run for one more term, but it would be his last if he is fortunate enough to be elected again and one of his top priorities will be to get a bridge built from east to west Iberville Parish.
“When you have a parish president, he has to look at what is good for the whole parish,” Ourso said. “You have to make that decision because you’re elected parishwide.”
“…I intend to use this coming year, 2018, and 2019 and until I retire or get voted out and leave a footprint on Iberville Parish by getting a commitment from the state to build a bridge for this parish,” he said.
“Iberville needs and deserves a bridge,” Ourso said. “I don’t want Iberville to be the only parish from the Felicianas and Pointe Coupee all the way down the river to the Sunshine Bridge in Ascension Parish and the Veterans Memorial Bridge in St. James Parish without a bridge. We have two ferries.”
“You mean to tell me that the biggest of second biggest petrochemical industry in the state of Louisiana, Dow Chemical, is here and all the tax dollars that we put into the state coffers and yet, our parish doesn’t have a bridge,” he said.
“We are deserving of a bridge here in Iberville Parish because of what we do here and it should not be singled out and not have a bridge,” Ourso said. “I can’t deal with that.”