East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden’s $335 million public safety tax plan that included money to build a new parish prison will not be on the May ballot — but the proposal is far from dead and voters may yet have a chance to decide on it this fall.
The Metro Council voted against sending the tax plan to voters at its Wednesday meeting with the chief objection being the timing of the election.
The main issue was that the Baton Rouge Plan of Government requires tax elections to be held in the fall, when voter turnout is larger. To have a tax election in the spring, as requested by the Holden administration and law enforcement leaders, the council would have had to declare the tax proposal an emergency.
Ultimately, the council voted 8-4 against declaring an emergency, which meant the measure could not be placed on the May ballot.
Council members also decried the fact that they had not received the details of the tax plan until a week before they were asked to vote.
Still, almost every council member voiced support for the projects that were included in the tax plan, and many said they would be supportive of a fall tax election.
Trae Welch, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Buddy Amoroso, Joel Boé, Ryan Heck, Chandler Loupe, Scott Wilson and John Delgado voted against declaring an emergency, while C. Denise Marcelle, Ronnie Edwards, Tara Wicker and Donna Collins-Lewis voted in favor of it.
Holden was not present at the meeting to lobby for his tax proposal. He made his case in a short video played for the council. He is attending FEMA training out of state, according to William Daniel, his chief administrative officer.
“We cannot go any longer with our prisoners housed under the conditions they’re housed under now,” Holden said in the video.
Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who was out of town on vacation, also appeared via video.
“These aren’t wants, these are needs that have to be addressed,” he said.
The tax plan proposes funding for a $204 million new and larger parish prison. Officials have long said the current prison is undersized and in deplorable condition.
The plan also provides funds for a mental health facility, a juvenile services facility, a new building for the district attorney and public defender offices, and renovations to the police headquarters located on Airline Highway.
The proposal would have been split into three ballot measures, a quarter-cent sales tax to fund construction, and a half-mill property tax and a 1.5 mill property tax to fund the operational costs of the mental health facility and prison, respectively.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III told council members that he considered the issue an emergency and urged them to let voters decide the issue in May.
Moore said that when he and his staff have to walk across the street from his current office to the courthouse, they are in danger of attack, particularly during high-profile cases.
In 2013, someone made a death threat against Moore in connection to his prosecution of the murder trial of rapper Torence “Lil Boosie” Hatch last year, he reminded the council.
The new building for his office would have been adjacent to the new courthouse and would have provided an enclosed connection between the two buildings.
Daniel, speaking on the mayor’s behalf, noted that at least three mentally ill people have died in parish prison in recent years.
“This is life or death for some people,” he said. “The safety net for the mentally ill is prison, and that’s wrong.”
Metro Council members said they supported the projects, but many questioned the timing and some questioned the financing.
“The projects identified, there’s no question they’re needed,” Welch said. “But now what’s being done is it’s being put on our laps within the last month and we’re told we have to vote on this now because it’s an emergency.”
He said many of his questions had not been answered. “Give me the backup data on the front end that says you’ve done every single thing you can to keep this from having to be a tax,” he said.
Even Delgado, who was initially a vocal supporter of the tax plan, unexpectedly voted against the plan on Wednesday.
He said he could only support new taxes if the services are essential and “there is absolutely no other way to pay for it.” On Wednesday he said the administration hadn’t provided him with enough information to prove that the tax was necessary.
Several council members and members of the public suggested exploring public-private partnerships to deflate the costs of the parish prison.
Boé noted that prisoners who are being sent out of the parish cost the city-parish less per day than prisoners housed inside the parish, which he said proves privatization should be considered.
Daniel said privatization proposals were submitted but would not work for the parish and would still require a revenue stream.
Amoroso noted that voter turnout for the spring election is only about 10 percent of registered voters, whereas the fall election would likely have high voter turnout because of a variety of statewide races including the governor’s race.
A fall election is also less expensive for the city-parish. A spring election would cost $420,000 with the cost to be split between the city-parish and the Sheriff’s Office. But in the fall, the state would pick up much of the price tag because it also will have several items on the ballot.
Council members who favored placing the tax proposal on the ballot in May said they were depriving voters of the opportunity to decide for themselves.
“How do we, as 12 council members, not allow the people to make the decision on whether they want the tax or not?” Marcelle asked.
Daniel said in an interview after the vote that the council should be familiar enough with the city-parish budget by now to know there’s no additional funds for the projects.
“They’ve been council members for years and they understand the limitations of the parish budget,” he said. “They are able to evaluate these proposals, and the parish prison is not anything new.”
He said he wished he could have given the council project details before last week but was unable to do so because they only began crafting the proposal at the beginning of December. But that doesn’t mean the plan was rushed, he said when asked, because the plan repeats several projects included in Holden’s previous tax plans.
However, the mental health facility and the new building for the district attorney were brand-new project proposals.
This is the second time the Metro Council has voted against sending one of Holden’s proposed tax plans to the voters. Members also voted against putting a 2011 capital improvements plan on the ballot, with many of them citing a lack of time to evaluate the plan.
Holden’s other two proposals failed at the polls in 2008 and 2009.
His previous attempts called for spending between $748 million and $989 million and included more money for economic development and parish infrastructure.