Mayor President Kip Holden said Thursday that he’s washing his hands of a $335 million public safety tax plan in the wake of the Metro Council’s vote against sending the measure to voters this May.
“I’m telling you point-blank — I’m not pushing the tax,” he said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “Kip Holden is not placing another tax on the agenda.”
Holden was not present for the vote on Wednesday because he was out of town for FEMA training. But he said Thursday that the council made a grave error of judgment.
“I’m disappointed because apparently they don’t understand the magnitude of what’s looming for Baton Rouge,” he said.
The mayor said he wouldn’t pursue the tax because, “They’ve spoken. But I think they’ve seriously misread the public on this, especially on the mental health piece.”
The public safety tax package was backed by Holden and law enforcement leaders. It would have provided funds for a new parish prison, a new juvenile detention center, a new building for the district attorney and public defender, and a building and services to address the mentally ill in Baton Rouge who end up in prison.
The construction and operations were to be funded by a quarter-cent sales tax, a half-mill property tax and another 1.5 mill property tax.
Holden said the council would “see who is proven right in time,” if the federal government winds up intervening because of unsafe conditions at the parish prison.
He also said it’s inhumane to allow the mentally ill to continue to be put in the general population of the prison, when the mental health facility would have ensured they were directed to treatment they needed.
Several Metro Council members on Wednesday said their issue with the tax plan was primarily a lack of information and concern about having a May election, with low voter turnout, over an October or November election.
Holden’s name is expected to be on the October ballot in his bid for lieutenant governor.
On Wednesday, the Metro Council was asked to declare the tax plan an emergency because, legally, the city-parish cannot call a tax election in the spring without the provision that it’s an urgent matter.
Holden’s staff and law enforcement leaders urged the council to declare an emergency, noting that public safety employees are working in unsafe conditions and mentally ill people have died in custody.
The council ultimately voted 8-4 against calling it an emergency, so the election could not be legally held until the fall.
“What happened to the emergency?” Councilman Trae Welch asked Thursday. “How is it that it can go, in less than 24 hours, from a dire situation to not worth the effort?”
Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who oversees the parish prison and was a supporter of the plan, said he was disappointed by the council’s vote.
“I’m disappointed in the fact that I know what the needs are and I know how pressing they are,” Gautreaux said. He said he might have the legal authority to ask voters to levy a tax to construct a prison, but he doesn’t expect he will seek one.
Seeking a tax would mean his office would have to take ownership of the parish jail, whereas the city-parish currently provides the jail.
“Do I really want to assume that responsibility for the Sheriff’s Office, not only for me but for future sheriffs?” Gautreaux asked.
Gautreaux has pushed for a new prison for years, saying the current one is undersized and in disrepair.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who would have gotten a new office building with the tax money, said he was hopeful city leaders would continue to try to find ways to finance the projects.
“I am all for looking at any alternatives to tax,” he said. “However, the issues are not going away and will still need to be addressed.”
Baton Rouge Area Foundation CEO John Davies said his organization also had no intention of pushing a fall election. BRAF was heavily involved with designing the tax plan and was a major advocate for the mental health component.
“I’m demoralized,” Davies said. “I thought it made so much sense. I was really surprised the council would push it forward.”
He said it’s unclear what the next step would be, but he felt “pessimistic that there’s enthusiasm on the part of the council to get this done.”
Council members John Delgado and Ryan Heck on Thursday asked Holden’s office to produce a report evaluating “revenue-neutral” proposals to fund mental health services in the wake of the council’s vote.
The mental health facility has been dubbed the “Restoration Center.”
Delgado said law enforcement and medical leadership testimony illustrated that the mental health facility was the most important part of the tax plan. He also said a mental health facility could have a dramatic impact on the number of people in parish prison and solve the overcrowding issue.
“If we find out that we can’t do it without raising taxes, only then do we need to let that go to the voters,” Delgado said.
Heck called the Mayor’s Office “lazy” for immediately proposing a tax to solve its problems.
“No work was done. They just said, ‘How can we do this? Let’s ask for more money,’ ” Heck said. “They threw it on us and make us out to be the boogeymen, but now we’re flipping it back to them and saying, ‘Do the work.’ ”
Holden was dismissive of the request for a report from his office. He accused the council members of playing politics.
“Those are people who obviously don’t understand anything about finances,” Holden said. “I’m not going to go through a vain exercise so they can placate a few people.”
“Stop teasing people and stop playing games,” he added.