Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration unveiled details Wednesday of a $335 million tax proposal to pay for public safety and capital improvements, which he wants voters to decide on in May.
This marks Holden’s fourth attempt at persuading voters to approve higher taxes to pay for expensive and sweeping infrastructure improvements for the parish. Among those are a $204 million new parish jail, a $16 million mental health facility, a $50 million juvenile services facility and more.
The plan, if approved by the Metro Council next week and then by parish voters on May 2, will be paid for in part with a quarter-penny sales tax increase. The sales tax increase would start in July and span 25 years, but would only cover the cost of construction.
Holden’s Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said the source of revenue for the plan’s aspects that are not construction-related, such as operational costs, has not been determined yet. In early December, the Mayor’s Office said an additional property tax would also be needed to cover operational costs as part of the proposal. However, Daniel said Wednesday that’s not been decided yet.
Holden teased the plan earlier in the day when he spoke at a Rotary Club meeting, where many in attendance greeted the announcement with applause.
“This proposal will save taxpayers money, solve our unsafe conditions at the existing prison and take pressure off our emergency rooms ... which have become a revolving door,” Holden said.
But Metro Council members did not receive the finalized details of the plan until after the mayor’s speech, and they are the ones who will decide if the measure makes the May ballot.
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said she was frustrated that council members were receiving the full details of the plan only one week before they will vote on whether to place it on the ballot.
“It should have come to the council a long time ago,” she said.
One firm “nay” vote is already on the books.
Councilman Buddy Amoroso said he has always opposed tax elections when voter turnout is expected to be low, as is expected to be the case in May. He said he has already made his position clear to the Holden administration.
Councilman John Delgado said he, too, dislikes May tax elections. But he said the proposed projects are too important not to send to voters. He called the mental health facility, new prison, juvenile services facility and other additions “absolutely necessary,” but questioned if taxes are the best way to pay for them.
The city-parish spends millions of dollars annually to house prisoners across the state that cannot fit at the Parish Prison. More than half of the money included in Holden’s public safety tax plan is dedicated to building a $204 million parish prison, with a capacity of 2,500 beds — which will increase the capacity of the current prison by 900.
Delgado said the savings from not shipping prisoners across the state, in additional to possible money coming in from housing prisoners from other parishes, could help pay for the new prison instead of paying for it with higher taxes.
The prison is one of two big ticket items making a return appearance. The other is the juvenile services facility that will include capacity to hold juvenile offenders awaiting adjudication in that court system.
Holden included funds for new projects, including a mental health center that would help divert mentally ill people out of the jail, and new district attorney and public defender offices.
Holden’s previous tax plans were between $748 million and $989 million and included more money for economic development and parish infrastructure. But both plans met with defeat, both at the polls and once by the Metro Council. The newest proposal is a pared-down plan, limited to public safety projects, and less expensive than anticipated when first revealed in December.
“We loaded it up with too much, we tried to many things,” Holden said about his past attempts. “We are focused on a priority ... the cost of keeping people behind bars is astronomical.”
Here’s a break down of the tax plan:
MENTAL HEALTH FACILITY: Dubbed the “Restoration Center,” this facility will provide 24-hour crisis assessment, evaluation, intervention, outpatient recovery and counseling for patients requiring psychiatric services. The cost of the facility is $16,596,187. Holden mentioned the mental health facility in his “State of the City” speech Wednesday, saying the city “will stop treating mental illness as a crime and begin treating it as a disease.” The Restoration Center and jail diversion program are expected to be complete by August 2017
PARISH PRISON: A new 2,500 bed jail, with a work release facility for 250 persons and a video visitation facility. The current jail has a capacity of 1,600 people. Between 400 and 600 inmates are transported out of the parish to other jails because of lack of space. The new facility will be energy efficient, and incorporate high-tech surveillance technology: Construction is estimated at $204,427,650 and is estimated to begin in April 2017 and end in October 2019.
JUVENILE SERVICES FACILITY: The new juvenile services facility will have a capacity of 88 beds and will allow for the consolidation of juvenile courts, probation and detention services. It will “secure a nurturing environment” for processing, housing and rehabilitating juvenile offenders as well as those involved with foster parenting and adoptions. Construction is estimated at $50,065,633, and is expected to begin in October 2016 and end in April 2018.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY AND PUBLIC DEFENDER BUILDING: The new judicial annex will be a 65,000-square-foot building directly connected to the downtown 19th Judicial District Courthouse. It will be located on the vacant previous Sheriff’s Office headquarters property. This new building is designed to consolidate the offices of the District Attorney and the Public Defender and provide secure entrance into the courthouse. The District Attorney’s office is in City Hall, directly across the street from the proposed new building, and the Public Defender’s office is one block away. The cost for the proposed building is $27,293,537 and the cost of building the secured prisoner entry way connecting the building to the courthouse is another $1,435,563. The secure prisoner entryway is expected to be complete by September 2016 and the judicial annex is expected to be finished by October 2017.
POLICE HEADQUARTERS RENOVATIONS: Holden earmarked $31,749,111 of his tax plan for ongoing construction work at the new public safety complex, where Baton Rouge Police are housed. City police were previously located at the downtown Mayflower Street location. But in 2013, the city-parish purchased the old Woman’s Hospital located on Airline Highway for $10 million, and then spent another $6 million retrofitting it for the law enforcement uses. The plan is that eventually the site will house both the police and Sheriff’s Office and provide a permanent shared training facility. Previous tax plans proposed by Holden called for $102 million for a new public safety complex, but after the last one failed, the administration worked out the deal for the old hospital. Renovations are not expected to begin until 2022 and would finish in 2023.
SHERIFF CIVIL DIVISION ADDITIONS AND RENOVATIONS: The Sheriff’s Office has a satellite office in City Hall for its civil division. The tax plan allocates $4,092,615 for office renovations to provide more space and storage in the areas vacated by the District Attorney’s Office. They plan to complete the changes by September 2018.