Voters in five Florida parishes asked to renew 3-mill tax for juvenile detention center _lowres

Advocate file photo by Heidi Kinchen -- Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center (between Robert and Goodbee on U.S. 190)

Juvenile justice officials in the Florida Parishes are preparing to put a failed property tax renewal back on the ballot in April to keep the doors open at the north shore’s only juvenile detention center.

The fate of the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center became uncertain Nov. 21, when voters in all five parishes the center serves — Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington — rejected renewal of the tax that provides more than 85 percent of the facility’s funding.

Wednesday night, the commission that oversees the detention center’s operations announced its intention to put the 3-mill, 10-year tax back on the ballot. The official vote to do so will come during the commission’s Jan. 13 meeting.

The commission also voted unanimously to have its attorney negotiate with a public relations firm to help educate the public on the services the detention center provides. The commission capped that expense at $10,000.

In the meantime, the facility’s administration has delayed starting certain improvement projects, such as re-roofing the administration side of the complex, and all juveniles have been moved into the south building to reduce utilities and other costs.

Financial adviser David Danel said the commission has about $8.3 million in reserve funding, down from the $10 million confirmed by auditors in the commission’s 2014 audit.

Because the facility is operated primarily on property tax revenue, the fund balance ebbs to its lowest point around November each year as the commission digs into its reserves waiting for tax payments to start rolling in again, Danel said.

The commission expects to collect about $7.4 million in 2015 property taxes, which were levied at a rolled-back rate of 2.75 mills, Danel said.

Danel advised the commission that, if the tax does not pass in April, the facility likely would run out of money in about 16 months. He suggested, in that scenario, shuttering the center after 12 months to keep enough funds on hand to maintain the buildings.

Judges, district attorneys and sheriffs from the five-parish district pledged their support Wednesday to help pass the tax.

Juvenile Judge Blair Edwards, of the 21st Judicial District, said the detention center houses juveniles accused of violent offenses, including attempted murder, drive-by shootings and sexual predation.

“If you’re not going to vote for the tax, don’t call me when the child is released,” Edwards said.

The detention center spends roughly $350 per day housing, educating, feeding, counseling and securing each of the 60 juveniles, on average, held there, Edwards said. That figure is $69 per juvenile per day below the national average, she said, and a real bargain compared with the cost of allowing potential repeat offenders back into the community without rehabilitation.

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, of the 21st Judicial District, described the detention center as “a model facility” that allows juveniles to be treated and housed near their families, rather than shipped all over the state in search of available beds.

District Attorney Warren Montgomery, of the 22nd Judicial District, said as much as he dislikes taxes, he dislikes even more the idea of releasing into the community those youths with a high probability of committing additional crimes.

“That would only cost us more in the long run,” he said.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.