St. Charles Herald-Guide

Parish presidents complain about port dealings, cite lack of communication

By Kyle Barnett - June 14, 2013

With the upcoming change in leadership at the Port of South Louisiana, some local leaders are hoping for an improvement in communications with the port.

In July, St. James Parish resident and current port legal counsel Paul Aucoin will be replacing Joel Chaisson Sr., who has served as the portís executive director for the past eight years and served as its legal counsel for five years before that.

At a River Region Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at Ormond Plantation in mid-May, St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom delved into the problems her administration has been having with the port, which stretches into St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes.

"Obviously there has been a relationship with the port for many, many years. Unfortunately it appears to have been fairly superficial," she said.

Underscoring the importance of the port to the region, Robottom said it is a crucial relationship that cannot be neglected.

"I think it is going to be critical that we are all working toward the same goal - all of the parishes as well as the port. Information is a big part of that," she said.

In response to Robottomís comments, Chaisson said he felt like communication between the port and parishes has been good overall.

"I think that is really an overstatement. There has been more cooperation, more open dialogue in the past eight years that I have been executive director than there has been in the history of the port," he said.

St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said when he took office in 2008 the parishís relationship with the port was strained, but it has greatly improved since.

"When I took over office I didnít have a very good working relationship with the port because I felt that we were being left out," he said.

St. Pierre said regular meetings between port representatives were established and the relationship has grown over the past few years.

"We started having quarterly meetings early in the morning where we sit down and discuss our projects and they sit down and discuss their projects. I think since that time we have really come closer together," he said.

Although St. Pierre said relations between St. Charles Parish and the port had improved, he pointed to a troubling situation that arose three years ago between St. James Parish and the port.

St. James Assessor Glenn Waguespack said the issue concerned land the port provided for the expansion of the Plains Marketing fuel storage facility, which they were not allowed to tax.

"When the port takes title to property we canít tax that. We canít tax a governmental body," he said.

According to Waguespack, what ended up happening was that the real estate the plant expansion was built on and fuel stored at the site were going to be tax exempt.

"If they do too many projects like that where are we going to get our taxes from?" he said. "We have schools that need money, law enforcement – all of these things depend on ad valorem or property taxes."

Although Waguespack said they eventually came to an agreement for Plains Marketing to pay taxes at a reduced rate, it did not come without a struggle and only came after the port approved the facilityís expansion.

"The disagreement we had was we asked them to not approve the project until we came to an agreement and we got into a tiff because they just shoved it down our throats and approved it," he said.

Plains Marketing does now pay property taxes on their holdings, but not to the degree that they would have if they had built on property not under the control of the port.

Chaisson admitted the issue could have been handled better.

"I will admit that we had a little communication problem with the assessor of St. James Parish, but I think everyone is happy with the way it came out," he said.

Aucoin said when he takes over as executive director he intends on making it a priority to hear out any complaints parish leaders may have.

"I know it has been an issue and itís an issue I intend to address," he said.

In particular, Aucoin said he will make himself as available as possible.

"Since I have been in economic development I have a good relationship with all of the people involved and I have always told them if you do not think you are getting enough information, pick up the phone and call me and I am going to give it to you," he said.

The Port of South Louisiana is the largest tonnage port in the Western Hemisphere and together with other ports along the 80-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans anchors the largest port sector in the world.

The port serves as an important outlet for industry in the area to both receive and ship goods to and from the rest of the country and the world.

The port of South Louisiana Commission oversees port operations and is comprised of four commissioners appointed by the governor and three commissioners that are appointed by St. John, St. Charles and St. James parishes.