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|Sterlington looks to sales tax funds for Safe Routes to School project|
The town of Sterlington wants to use road funds the parish collects from its one-cent sales tax to build sidewalks near its schools through the Safe Routes to School program.
Mayor Vern Breland and town engineer Tom Holtzclaw recently asked the Ouachita Parish Police Jury for permission to use the funds for that purpose.
In November 2007, the police jury allowed the town to use money the parish collects in Sterlington from the one-cent sales tax for road improvements. The agreement between Sterlington and the police jury was for five years.
The one-cent sales tax was approved by voters in 1977. Revenues generated by the tax are earmarked for road and ditch maintenance in the unincorporated areas of Ouachita Parish.
Sterlington wanted to take over road maintenance within the town's corporate limits to move forward with town road projects at a faster pace. Because the parish has hundreds of miles of roads, certain roads within Sterlington have remained at the bottom of the parish's priority list.
"When we entered in this agreement with the police jury we assured you that the money would be used for specific purposes, which is roads and drainage," Breland told the police jury. "Right now, Mr. (Jay) Mitchell (parish attorney) is under the opinion that it would not be illegal to spend the money for this purpose. We just want to make sure the police jury is aware of what we are doing."
Money spent by Sterlington through the Safe Routes to School program will be reimbursed, Breland said.
"So, it's not something where we are spending the road/drainage money to build these sidewalks, and then not having that money come back into the fund," Breland said. "We'll spend the money, then submit our expenditures to the state under the Safe Routes for School for reimbursement."
"We just want the police jury to be aware of what we are doing and we want you to be comfortable with it," Breland continued. "For us to make sure we are doing things correctly, we brought it to you to let you look at it. If you are comfortable with it, then we can go ahead and do what we need to do."
Mitchell said, "I gave the opinion to the mayor that this work would fall within the dedication of the road tax based on a couple of assumptions. No. 1, the work is within the public road right of ways of parish-maintained roads. No. 2, this work is in areas of demonstrated concentration of pedestrians where construction of sidewalks serves a viable purpose as an improvement to the road. Getting pedestrians out of the roadway makes it safe for them and motorists.
"We do believe this is a legal use within the tax dedication of those dollars, but it is contrary to police jury precedent."
The national Safe Routes to School program has allocated $612 million to states to implement safe route projects over a five-year period. Louisiana will get $9.5 million over the course of those five years, or roughly $1.9 million each year.
The state awards the five-year grants, which is funded 100 percent by the federal government. The Safe Routes to School program is a reimbursement program, meaning local governing bodies must pay for all work and activities, though they will be reimbursed for their efforts.
The town of Sterlington submitted its sidewalk project to the state for its review.
The police jury took no action regarding this matter during its regular meeting last week. However, the police jury plans to discuss the issue at its next regular meeting, Monday, March 2.