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Moving forward in a COVID world: Parish leaders prioritize flood protection, economic development

LAPLACE — It’s too early to pinpoint the exact financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the tri-parish area, but parish budgets are healthy, and local leaders remain focused on bringing critical infrastructure projects to completion.

St. John Parish President Jaclyn Hotard and St. Charles Parish President Matt Jewell joined the River Region Chamber of Commerce on Zoom Thursday afternoon to discuss the challenges of protecting residents and rebuilding the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bob Millet, public policy chairman for the Chamber, conducted a Q&A with the parish presidents that included discussions on flood protection, drainage and industry.

Hotard said her top priority has always been the residents of St. John Parish.

“We have several things that we must always pursue with that top priority in mind,” Hotard said. “The West Shore Levee Project is the most important flood protection project that we have going on in St. John.”

Hotard said the flooding problem is two-fold, encompassing tidal surge and rainfall. Alleviating flooding in residential corridors will be just as important as controlling storm surge.

Quality of life and recreation arealso priorities. Eight months into her first term as parish president, Hotard has diversified recreation to engage youth in cheer camps, art camps and dance camps in addition to the usual sports opportunities.

Supporting economic development has always been a priority, but it is even more crucial since the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread unemployment.

“One of the things we need to look at – and we would probably be a little further along if not for COVID – is streamlining our permitting process. That would not only make it easier to do business in St. John, but make it easier for our residents to be able to sustain their businesses,” Hotard said.

A hallmark of economic development in a COVID world will be ensuring workers regain employment as quickly as possible by offering re-training opportunities. Hotard said St. John Parish offered assistance to diversify the skillsets of hundreds of workers laid off from the LaPlace Bayou Steel facility in late 2019. She added that strong relationships with industry and River Parishes Community College can provide a gateway to job skill training for residents.

When Millet asked how local revenue forecasts would be affected by COVID-19 as it relates to millages, Hotard responded that it is too early to fully assess the impact.

“We need to look at our sales tax revenues, not just for one or two months, but have a better trend,” Hotard said. “All of our budgets are healthy, but we don’t know if that will continue with the stay at home orders. We’ve seen some reduction in video poker revenue. However, we have been able to quickly recapture and receive funds that we would not normally have received in the CARES Act.”

St. Charles Parish President Matt Jewell said the industry of St. Charles Parish is at the heart of the parish’s business climate, which remains strong despite the pandemic.

“Small businesses and industry are the backbone of our economy. They employ a lot of our residents, from teenagers all the way up to senior citizens. They provide food, and they’ve always stepped up in times of need,” Jewell said. “St. Charles Parish is investing money to help people shop local and invest in local businesses.”

Jewell said that the economy has improved and home sales have skyrocketed in St. Charles Parish in recent years. Increased property values are expected to bring in additional revenue.

When the governor announced the stay at home order, St. Charles Parish leaders ran budget forecasts to reflect reductions in sales tax. While it is still too soon to tell what the sales tax trend for 2020 will look like, Jewell noted that the parish has an amendment requiring $7 million of emergency funding on hand at all times to ensure a balanced budget.

Flood protection and drainage remain the primary concerns for St. Charles Parish residents, especially those who have seen their homes flood two or three times in the past 18 months during heavy rainstorms.

Jewell said the parish is in the process of completing an East Bank and West Bank master drainage plan. There is also a moratorium on all major subdivisions while the drainage master plan is underway. Drainage and sewer initiatives will continue during this time. Jewell said the moratorium won’t last longer than 18 months, and some areas of the parish may be released as soon as November.

“St. Charles Parish is a desirable place to live, and we want to be able to grow in a smart and controlled way that doesn’t impact our existing residents negatively, and we’ve seen some of that over the past few years,” Jewell said.

Both parish presidents weighed in on the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which seeks to encourage economic development with tax breaks for local industry.

Jewell thinks ITEP is here to stay, and he is in full support of any policy that gives more power to local government.

Hotard believes there should always be some involvement at the local level when it comes to ITEP and that each application needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

For more information about the River Region Chamber of Commerce, please visit riverregionchamber.org.