Hemelt: Social media fails to predict St. John tax passage

Published 12:03 am Saturday, May 6, 2017

Social media is not the 100 percent accurate snapshot of community standing those active users would have you believe.

That was very evident with the results of last week’s St. John the Baptist Parish property tax vote, which proponents say creates the local match necessary to secure a needed $718 million flood protection levee.

If you reviewed the comments on L’OBSERVATEUR’s Facebook page or those on the Parish’s and other community squawk boxes, they were filled with a seemingly endless supply of people determined to vote against the tax.

Something must have happened on the way to the voting booths because the new 7-mills tax measure passed — by quite a comfortable margin at that.

According to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office, 3,019 (63 percent) people voted for the measure, whereas 1,788 (37 percent) voted against it. The reported voter turnout was 16.2 percent.

For comparison sake, there was a 69.6 percent turnout in St. John Parish Nov. 8 when the presidential election was on the ballot; there was a 32.5 percent turnout Dec. 10 when the St. John School Board successfully passed a sales tax bump; and less than 15 percent turnout March 25 when selected St. John voters weighed in on District-specific races for Parish Council and School Board.

The level of animosity may have be been high heading into April 29’s election, but the level of participation was small.

Still, Parish President Natalie Robottom told me the negative comments were tough to avoid.

“I was a little down by some of the comments, but what I know is we did everything we could to inform everybody we could,” she said. “We did not hide; we did not shy away. I can assure you, we are better off with a levee than we are without one.”

Because of her interactions with residents, Robottom stresses many people remain truly afraid every time it rains, something not lost with the storms that passed Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

“There are people who have said they will not rebuild, they will not go through this again and that will determine the future of our community,” Robottom said. “(Passing this tax) is one more step, but we are not truly finished until we have a levee that is protecting us.”

The levee is the ultimate endgame, Robottom told me this week while explaining where the parish now stands.

It’s a process she has been actively involved in, going back to her first weeks as St. John chief administrative officer in 2004.

In that day, there was no agreement on levee alignment or money for a U.S. Corps of Engineers study, so the project basically stalled.

One devastating Hurricane Katrina later and there was some compromise on levee spending and consensus that construction should protect the interstate. Robottom said the Parish wanted the levee to go all the way out to Manchac, but the Corps wanted it closer to homes.

At least once a year since 2010, as she became parish president, Robottom said she visited our federal delegation in Washington to help ensure the Corps’ feasibility study was funded and completed, a necessary precursor for federal act inclusion.

That next major hurdle was cleared in late 2016 when then-President Barack Obama officially signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act into law. It includes the Westshore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Risk Reduction Project that aims to create levee protections for St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes.

“Ultimately, we didn’t go out to the people to ask (for a tax) until we had a real feasible project that is included in a bill with resources that is in the state’s master plan,” Robottom said. “I feel very good about it coming this far.”

Social media couldn’t have predicted that.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545  or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.