Voters on Saturday soundly defeated two unrelated requests for sales tax increases that would have directed cash toward the Zachary school system and the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, Zachary voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed 1 percent sales tax increase that would have funneled several million dollars into the Zachary Community School System. In the wake of the defeat, district officials discussed on Sunday which cuts may have to be made.
The unofficial results were 1,778 votes against the 1 percent sales tax increase and 962 votes in favor of it — or 65 percent against the tax to 35 percent in favor of it, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
The proposal would have paved the way for the city’s sales tax to increase from 9 to 10 cents, one of the highest in the state, and would have raised more than $3.3 million annually in revenue for the schools’ general operations budget.
School officials said Saturday’s vote was not an indication of a change in support for the district.
“This community has always supported its school system and they still do,” said Scott Devillier, superintendent of Zachary Community Schools on Sunday. “It’s just that economic time where no one wants to pay more taxes. And I understand that.”
With the rejection of the tax increase, Zachary schools may face cuts to extracurricular programs, Devillier said, blaming the rising costs of pensions and dwindling funds from the state.
But the exact nature of those cuts still needs to be worked out in meetings over the next month or so, Devillier said. No specific type of program has been targeted, though Devillier has said classes for art, music and athletic programs could face cuts.
No teachers are facing the loss of their jobs, though the district may consider cutting positions through attrition, Devillier said.
Zachary was the top-performing school district in the state in 2014, according to the state Department of Education.
“This will continue to be a good school system,” Devillier said. “It’s not necessarily what we wanted, but it’s OK.”
Devillier, though, did warn that increasing costs were outpacing the increase in revenue and more funds would need to come eventually. Officials have said that since 2009, the school district has shouldered more than $5 million in new costs for retirement and health benefits.
The proposal’s failure by such a wide margin surprised Zachary City Councilman Brandon Noel, whose wife is a teacher in the city’s school system.
“This school district has been and will continue to be the driving train of this community,” Noel said. “I hope this doesn’t hurt the schools, because if the schools start to fail, that hurts the community as a whole.”
Also on Saturday, voters in West Baton Rouge Parish rejected a half-cent sales tax proposal that would have poured an annual $2.9 million into the Sheriff’s Office.
The unofficial vote tally was 1,862 against the half-cent sales tax and 1,491 in favor of it, or 56 percent against the tax to 44 percent for it, according to the secretary of state’s website.
Sheriff Mike Cazes said the defeat at the polls will have no effect on essential services and was devised as a way to cover future operating costs.
Cazes said he is facing a shortfall of about $365,000 this year, and in the coming weeks, he will look at cutting nonessential services to make up for the loss.
“I’ve lived within my means, and I can see for the future that I would need this (tax) to keep us above water,” Cazes said. “I respect the voters, and I’ll look at the budget to see what nonessential cuts I could make.”
The proposed tax hike came under criticism from some like the Louisiana Tea Party, who wondered why Cazes was asking for more funding when he recently touted a surplus during his re-election campaign.
Roughly half of the sheriff’s funding comes from property taxes, but the office has faced a $6 million gap every year — which amounts to roughly half of its operating budget at $12.9 million, Cazes has said. The office has routinely made up for that gap with federal grants and forms of self-generated revenue like court and bond fees. But the department has had a rise in calls from 2,500 to over 10,000 in the last two decades, and the price of equipment and personnel keeps increasing, Cazes has said.
The Sheriff’s Office has never had a designated sales tax designed to keep it afloat. Efforts in the past to add new revenue — through a 10-year property tax in 2005 that would have allotted 5-mill in revenue — failed as well.
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter, @_dbethencourt.