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)

Voters in five parishes across the north shore will be asked on Nov. 21 to renew a property tax for the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center.

The 3-mill tax, which voters first approved in 1995, is the primary revenue source for the detention center, which serves Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes.

The tax is projected to generate about $9.5 million per year for 10 years, according to the proposition’s language, although audit reports indicate the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission has levied only 2.75 mills each year since 2011.

“We’ve rolled it back the past three or four years and have no intention of ever going up to the full 3 mills,” Commission Chairman David Merlin Duke said Wednesday. “We will always vote to collect only what we need.”

Levying 2.75 mills, the commission has collected about $7.5 million per year, roughly equivalent to the facility’s annual operations budget, Duke said.

The proposition requests approval for 3 mills, though, because any change to the existing tax would require balloting the measure as a new tax, rather than a renewal, he said.

Duke, the commission chairman, said renewing the tax is essential to keeping the doors open at the detention center.

“While the commission collects court cost fees to pay our own expenses, like insurance, the millage is overwhelmingly the largest funding source for operating the facility itself,” he said.

The detention center has gathered attention recently after several employees filed complaints alleging discrimination and retaliation and another employee was arrested in allegedly recording her supervisor’s conversations. Two members of the administration also resigned this year, including the executive director, who left three months before his contract expired to accept a position elsewhere.

None of the cases appear to concern the care given to children in the facility, which uses a therapeutic model of caregiving focused on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.

If the millage were not renewed, the commission could operate the detention center for another year on its $10 million reserve, Duke said. Beyond that, law enforcement would have to go back to seeking placement for juveniles at area prisons, which are often overflowing with their existing adult populations.

“It would be next to impossible to go back,” Duke said. “It was difficult enough to find space before the detention center was built. Now that those beds are being used for adults, the sheriffs would almost certainly say there is no room.”

The detention center’s daily census hovers around 55 to 70 children, about half of what the 133-bed facility could accommodate. The commission budgets for an average daily population of 75, he said.

“The trend in juvenile justice is that there are not as many offenders, but the crimes tend to be more serious,” Duke said.

The facility was expanded from 31 to 74 beds in 1999, then another 28 beds were added in 2010, according to the detention center’s website.

Duke said the last expansion was driven primarily by an increased need for bed space after Hurricane Katrina. Other disasters could similarly increase demand, he said.

The tax must pass by a majority of the total votes cast in all five parishes, rather than a majority in each parish.

When it was last up for renewal in 2004, the proposition garnered a majority in each parish, according to data from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office. The narrowest margins of victory were in Livingston and St. Tammany, where 51.8 percent and 51.1 percent, respectively, of voters casting ballots supported the tax.

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