LIVINGSTON -- A population just over 136,000 makes Livingston second to Ascension as Louisiana’s fastest growing parish, but second-to-none in terms of raw population in the nine parish Baton Rouge Metro area. However, millage revenue reflects a vast disparity from one boundary to another.
Population and households
The growth trend remains brisk in District 2 along the northwest end of the parish around Watson, with a population of 22,827 across a 27.6 square-mile area.
It’s a different story on the southeastern end -- Killian and Springfield -- of the parish in District 8, a 250-square mile area with a population of 9,682.
The Livingston Parish School System, vast land and close proximity to Baton Rouge triggered much of the growth in the Watson area, where the population averages 518 per square mile. Across the parish in District 8, the population figures to 57 per square mile.
Some value the convenience of living in an ever-growing suburban corridor, while others cherish the somewhat quiet life common in a rural area. But with the disparity comes a gap in the available public services.
The numbers tell the story in a list of the millage totals for Tax Year 2018, provided by the Livingston Parish Assessor’s office.
Perhaps the greatest disparity comes in the realm of fire protection.
Livingston Parish Fire Protection District 4, funded by a 10-mill property tax, generates $3.64 million annually for fire protection which includes full-time firefighters 24 hours, seven days a week.
Two fire protection districts -- 2 and 8 -- oversee District 8. FP District 2 (Springfield/ Killian) operates on $491,616 annually and 9 (Maurepas) works off $272,500 per year.
The disparity represents two different parishes -- one with far more in the line of services than the other. The other districts, meanwhile, are cast in their own sense of disparity based on their population.
District councilman and population
For a rural district with a limited number of businesses, a sales tax would accomplish very little to generate revenue, District 8 Councilman Tab Lobell said.
It narrows the options to a property tax, which relegates funding issues to a dead end.
“There’s much less opportunity for a sales tax in the rural areas, so the challenge is that if you want to get something done, it falls on the burden of the property owner -- and they already feel overburdened,” he said.
A 10.14-mill tax pumps $1.417 million in the District 5 coffers, but the figures show a steep drop-off in the rural areas with smaller populations and land assessed either as timber property or agricultural.
Livingston Parish Fire Protection District 1 in Albany operates off a 10-mill tax, but it yields only $370, 913 annually. A few miles west on US 190, FD10 relies on a 10.94 mill ad valorem tax which generates a modest $250,355 per year. In the northeastern portion of the parish, Fire Protection District 11 -- north of Albany -- function off a 10-mill tax which brings in $40,758 per year.
The rural departments serve their purpose, but the vast area and a limited number of firefighters and personnel make the wait longer.
“Sometimes it comes down to one person,” Lobell said.
Sales tax can make the difference in areas such as Walker and Denham Springs, both which reap the benefits of a growing business community.
It’s a mixed blessing, Lobell said.
“One of the great things here in a rural area is that you don’t have Walmart,” he said. “At the same time, one of the great disadvantages here in a rural areas is we do not have a Walmart, which means no opportunity for sales tax.
“But with population comes traffic, crowds and other challenges,” Lobell said. “Many people -- myself included -- enjoy the benefits that come with a rural district.”
The rural charm, however, does not account for the lack of gravity drainage for District 8 and nearly 75 percent of Livingston Parish.
Voters rejected funding for Gravity Drainage Districts 6 and 7 on a November 2017 ballot, which would have provided drainage services to 80 percent of Livingston Parish.
“That’s the biggest challenge for our areas,” District 9 Councilman Shane Mack said. “We don’t have any type of off-road drainage, so we rely on the Department of Public Works which has one crew and covers 80 percent of the parish ... it’s slim pickings.”
Mack pushed the proposition along with Lobell and District 1 member Jeff Ard.
The lack of a dedicated district has made it difficult for the rural parishes to keep the pace on flood control, Lobell said.
“It’s hard to put a dent in it when you have approximately 250 square miles,” he said. “It works okay with road drainage, but it’s not very little in the line of lateral drainage.”
District 2 Councilman Garry “Frog” Talbert believes his area represents the best of both worlds.
He said his district has retained its rural characteristics in spite of its growth.
“That’s been the draw to the area,” he said. “Watson has a a small-town feel to it, nice subdivisions and larger tracts of lands for those who want to subdivide.
“We were the fastest growing district in the state for a while, but the growth has been all about schools,” Talbert said. “I don’t mean anything derogatory, but I think our six schools are the best in the parish, and that’s been the draw for our area.”
The concentrated growth along the northwestern end of the parish makes sense for another reason, said District 3 Councilman Maurice “Scooter” Keen, whose constituency borders from the outskirts of Denham Springs toward Watson.
“That’s the area that should grow because it’s closest to East Baton Rouge Parish, and as people get ready to leave, they go either to Ascension, West Baton Rouge or the northwest corner of Livingston, and I’m in that area,” he said.
The vast growth in the area also demonstrates one of the areas more sorely lacking in Livingston Parish.
Keen believes the lack of infrastructure has been the biggest stumbling block for the parish. Much of that will come into play when the parish devises its next master plan.
“We need more infrastructure, we need new roads and we need the Juban North project in the worst kind of way,” he said. “It’s going to take implementing the master plan, which includes zoning of at least the corridors so we can protect the pieces of property where we’ll build those new roads.”
For District 4, which covers most of the City of Denham Springs and some unincorporated areas, the usual culprits -- traffic and drainage -- pose the biggest issues, Councilman John Wascom said.
“There’s not much we can do about the traffic building new roads, and I’ve pushed hard for the Cook Road extension, but the Army Corps of Engineers has held off on the environmental study, which has held us back.’”
While growth has been limited in Wascom’s district, it’s a different story for District 5, said councilman R.C. “Bubba” Harris, whose area has seen an upswing in housing development in recent years.
In some ways, Harris believes he has the best of both worlds with a rural district which has services from Gravity Drainage District 1, along with fire districts 4 and 5, the two largest in the parish.
The development remains his biggest concern. GDD 1 takes in just under $997,000 annually off a 4.43-mill tax, but Harris believes developers should pay their share on infrastructure in their subdivisions.
“Growth should not cost the past ... the developer needs to put up some money for it,” Harris said. “We’ll still be paying for some of it down the road.”
While some areas have seen a spike in population, other areas have experienced a decline.
The largest drop came in District 9, where the population fell from 16,000 in 2010 to 12,063 as of September 2018, a drop Councilman Shane Mack attributes to the flood.
His area has seen an increase in the number of road projects, something that has come about since 2015.
“The year I got elected, they had already decided the previous year on road overlay and District 9 had not gotten any,” Mack said. “This go-round, I feel we’ve been treated fairly.”
While roads remain a focal point of concern across the parish, the drainage issue will play the biggest role in reshaping the parish, said District 7 Councilman Tracy Girlinghouse, whose area includes the rapidly growing City of Walker.
The city handles all drainage issues within the corporate limits.
“I think the drainage district does a good job, but I won’t say it’s excellent,” he said.
“I do feel they do as good a job as they can with the money they receive.”
Girlinghouse believes the parish must eventually create a parishwide drainage district if it wants to continue its residential growth. It will likely play a key role in the master plan in 2021, and would end disparity on perhaps the most vital service for Livingston Parish.
“Parishwide drainage is our ultimate goal,” he said. “People in the lower parts of the parish (Port Vincent and French Settlement) don’t want to fund it, but ultimately we’re going to have to get in the funded districts to agree to a funding mechanism for the entire parish where everyone is funded the same amount.”
Residents in the southern part of the parish will eventually need to move beyond the notion that all the drainage money will be funneled to Denham, Walker and Watson, Girlinghouse said.
“We need to get people out of the mindset of looking out only for their own area,” he said.”We need to base this one on what is paid in districts, average it together and everyone pays the same, and base any increases on the Consumer Price Index, which means they’ll never be underfunded.”
The August 2016 flood put a spotlight on where priorities should lie within the parish.
“It made us realize we need to start looking at the parish as a whole if we want to continue to grow,” Girlinghouse said.
John Dupont is a reporter for the Livingston Parish News. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @dupont_john.