Editor's Note: The following is a list of the Top 10 news stories of 2018 in Livingston Parish, as voted on by the staff of the Livingston Parish News!
No. 1 - Comite River Diversion
Canal receives full funding
On July 5, 2018, it was announced that the Comite River Diversion Canal had been given the blessing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and would receive full funding to the tune of $343 million. The project had been on the books since 1985 at an original cost of roughly $100 million, but land acquisition, new subdivisions, new infrastructure, and funding woes caused the project to be pushed back several times. Livingston, East Baton Rouge, and Ascension Parish taxpayers had been paying a 2.56-mill property tax since 2000 to fund the project. The Amite River Basin Commission recently stated that the tax will need one more renewal - to fund final land acquisitions - before it falls off the books. The funding came from a late push by Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge; Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.; and local officials to add dedicated funds to Louisiana disaster mitigation and prevention to a bill. The corps said it expects the project to be completed by 2021 and serve as a beginning to regional flood mitigation and drainage.
No. 2 - Livingston Parish voters
overwhelmingly approve term
Before Livingston Parish voters on the November ballot rested a proposition to impose term limits on both the parish president and Parish Council. A total of 29,805 voters (74 percent) approved the amendment to the Home Rule Charter, while 10,374 (26 percent) opposed it. The amendment will take effect on Jan. 1, 2019, and will apply a three-term limit to all council members and parish president beginning in 2020. District 2 Councilman Garry Talbert and District 3 Councilman Maurice Keen were the most ardent supporters of the measure of the nine council members, stating it was a common question among constituents when they first ran for office. Parish President Layton Ricks suggested that he was not for the measure, however, he followed up that he would not run for re-election anyway after this third term.
No. 3 - School resource officer
sales tax proposal fails
On the November ballot, Livingston Parish voters rejected a proposed half-cent sales tax that Sheriff Jason Ard said would place a school resource officer (SRO) on every public-school campus in the parish. Roughly 56 percent of voters turned in a choice on the matter, with 22,992 placing their opinion against the extra tax. Proponents of the bill were interested in school safety, while opponents were concerned with the language of the proposal, which included phrases such as ‘in-perpetuity’ and ‘not limited to,’ as well as the forecasted revenue being more than the proposed costs. Ard suggested he would not bring the proposal back to ballot. RIGHT: Sheriff Jason Ard explains the tax plan.
No. 4 - Trump signs bill to fix
Duplication of Benefits issue, but
resolution hits new snag
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, skillfully added a provision to an aviation bill that would remove the Duplication of Benefits (DOB) from the books altogether. The law maintained anyone who had applied for Restore Louisiana benefits could not receive them if they had also applied for a Small Business Administration loan – this rule was made known to applicants only after they had been pushed by officials to apply for both. Despite President Donald Trump’s signature, a waiver signature is now required before Gov. John Bel Edwards can release funds to those in need.
No. 5 - Parish population hits
145,000, commercial growth hot
2018 was a year of growth in Livingston Parish as new residents moved in to the area. Despite the Great Flood of 2016, reasons for moving to Livingston Parish are still intact – safety, good schools, and affordable real estate. Roughly 100 homes, on average, are sold each month, and the population has grown past 145,000. This has caused a new commercial boom, as well, with a 95-percent increase in commercial permits and a bevy of new businessed opening in Denham Springs, Walker, and Watson. Large scale increases in offerings have also been announced for Livingston Square and Juban Crossing.
No. 6 - Parish goes to bat with
Ascension over Laurel Ridge Levee
A community gathering in French Settlement during the hot summer shed some light on what has become a long-term disagreement – and perhaps legal battle – between Ascension and Livingston parishes. Although officials claim that dredging and a moratorium on development in low-lying areas, and dredging the Amite River, would be of more help, Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks filed a lawsuit against Ascension Parish due to its inability to prove that the construction of the Laurel Ridge Levee system would not push more water into Livingston. The Laurel Ridge project had been on the books since 1982 and received a surprise approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in early 2018.
No. 7 - Livingston Parish school
system gets ‘B’ grade
Livingston Parish’s public school system received an 86.3, or ‘B,’ on the most recent scoring report. The scores are based on a new system that Louisiana Superintendent John White stated was not to bring schools down but, rather, give them new information to improve. Superintendent Rick Wentzel said he and his team will take the data and analysis provided by the state’s reporting board and come up with plans for improvement. Wentzel said many students are already at a ‘mastery’ level so improvement proves difficult. Livingston was one of 35 school systems in the state to get a ‘B,’ while only four systems received A grades – Ascension, Lafourche, Vermilion, and Zachary. According to Wentzel, under the old system, Livingston would have received an ‘A’ grade.
No. 8 - FEMA OKs demolition of
Three schools in Denham Springs – Denham Springs Elementary, Southside Junior High, and Southside Elementary – sat in limbo after the Great Flood of 2016 for more than two years. Symbolic demolitions and farewell ceremonies were held at all three sites as preparations are made to move forward with demolition and construction of new facilities. Disagreements between the School Board and FEMA highlighted the delay, as well as a rotation of customer service representatives working for FEMA who, according to school officials, constantly asked for information that had already been submitted and processed. The board will re-purpose Southside Elementary to offer vocational training to high school students, with a new campus near Southside Junior High. Denham Springs Elementary will be rebuilt on its original campuses.
No. 9 - Double homicide shakes
A retired Denham Springs schoolteacher and his wife were identified as the victims in a double homicide, Denham Springs Police Department Chief Shannon Womack said in a news conference Oct. 31. Eugene ‘Frank’ Gurley and his wife, Patricia, were found dead of blunt force trauma at their home and business – National Pool Supply – off Pete’s Highway. Detectives’ initial suspect, Michael Collins, would turn out to be the man who they say murdered the couple after being let go as an employee of their business. Collins left town immediately following the incident in the couple’s truck but was tracked down in Kentucky thanks to a CrimeStoppers lead. Although he appealed his extradition, a judge denied his appeal and Collins returned to Livingston Parish on Dec. 18. He now awaits trial.
No. 10 - Parish budget soars to
Sales taxes continue to rise and fill parish coffers, and none less than Livingston Parish government. Since 2001, the parish’s sales tax revenue has grown nearly $1 millon per month, and it’s just starting to show. After holding off on spending last year to see how the market would stabilize after the Great Flood of 2016, the parish is going all-in on road expenses. Quite a bit of the revenue growth comes from grants acquired late in the year, but the parish expects to be able to spend more money than usual. Much of the debt service incurred in the early 2000s is starting to tick away as well – a good sign for taxpayers looking for future infrastructure investment.