Livingston Parish leaders disagree how best to resurrect a failed proposal to fund the parish health unit.
Parish voters on Tuesday http://theadvocate.com/news/weeklies/10733392-125/livingston-parish-voters-rejecting-health">rejected a proposition to renew the health unit’s 10-year, 5-mill property tax with 57 percent voting “no,” less than a week after Parish Council Chairman Ricky Goff said the council should set aside the vote because the ballot measure http://theadvocate.com/news/livingston/10650912-123/livingston-health-unit-tax-proposal">grossly underestimated the amount of revenue it would generate.
Parish President Layton Ricks wants to correct the multimillion-dollar mistake but otherwise leave the measure untouched for now. He said the parish could later work with the state to see what other programs, like animal control or mosquito abatement, might be funded through the health unit.
Goff wants to scale back the millage request and pair it with a second proposition to fund the parish’s animal control program, while cutting the total tax residents would pay.
Health units are collaborations between parishes and the state. They provide and fund state and federal programs, but parishes can operate their own health initiatives through local funding.
Local public health funding has supported programs such as animal control, mosquito abatement, prisoner medical care and a coroner’s office in a variety of parishes, said J.T. Lane, assistant secretary with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Those programs are run by parish employees, but DHH can offer advice, such as asking a state scientist to help plan mosquito abatement.
Funding also has been granted to federally qualified health centers and local nonprofits that provide shelter for victims of domestic abuse and counseling for people struggling with substance abuse.
However, the language in the voter-approved millages in those parishes is broader than Livingston’s proposition.
It is up to the parish — and its legal counsel — to determine how its public health millage is spent, Lane said.
“The state has no legal authority to decide how to spend the money,” he said.
The Livingston health unit has been sitting on unused parish health funding for several years, amassing a surplus projected to exceed $6.6 million by the end of 2014.
The proposed 5-mill tax voters rejected Tuesday would have brought in an estimated $2.3 million per year, according to the Assessor’s Office, while the operation’s expenses total a little less than half that.
Ricks said Thursday the health unit needs to keep a generous surplus in case disaster strikes or there is a health crisis, such as an Ebola outbreak. He said the Parish Council should vote to put the same 5-mill tax back on the ballot in May, changing only the annual revenue estimate from the $762,782 quoted on Tuesday’s ballot to the correct figure of $2,363,628.33.
Goff said asking voters to approve a millage rate that guarantees the health unit an annual surplus of over $1 million, on top of the $6.6 million fund balance the tax has already amassed, is “just ridiculous.”
“They could run their department for six years on the surplus they already have,” Goff said. “Our responsibility is to collect the taxes needed to run the parish, not store money back like that.”
Goff said he will instead recommend that the council on Thursday approve asking voters for 1.5 mills for the health unit and, in a separate proposition, 1.5 mills for the parish’s animal control program. Each tax, if approved, would generate an estimated $700,000 per year, while reducing taxpayers’ burden from 5 mills to 3 mills, he said.
The health unit millage Goff proposes would not be enough to cover the operation’s annual expenses, forcing the agency to use $300,000 to $400,000 of its surplus each year. At that rate, the health unit would spend down $3 million to $4 million of its nest egg over the 10-year lifespan of the proposed tax.
“That would still leave them at least a $2 million surplus, which is double their annual expenses,” Goff said. “Normal practice is to set aside one year’s worth of expenses, but because of the nature of the types of disasters or crises a health unit might face, I think doubling that contingency would be reasonable.”
Goff also pointed out that with projects like Juban Crossing coming online, the value of a mill is likely to increase significantly over the lifespan of the tax.
Goff said he would rather make animal control a separate proposition, instead of broadening the ballot language of the parish’s health unit tax to encompass additional programming.
“That would give the people of the parish an opportunity to actually vote on whether they want animal control or not,” Goff said. “If they choose not, then they can make that statement and still support the health unit. But I think it’s important for the people of this parish to make that decision.”
Animal control and other public health-related programs have been funded through a public health millage in parishes where voters agreed to provide funding for “the general public health of the parish” or similar language, Lane said.
Livingston’s health unit tax proposition historically has called for funding “for the purpose of acquiring sites for and for construction, improving, maintaining and operating the parish health unit.”
Ricks said the parish did not reword the proposition language on Tuesday’s ballot to allow for additional use of the funding because “our concern was getting it passed, and we did not want to do anything to jeopardize that.”
“People these days are so anti-tax, it would’ve been considered a new tax, and in general, we were just absolutely scared to death to run that risk,” he said.
Ricks said any attempt to split the health unit millage among different purposes could backfire in the same way.
“I think the absolutely best way forward is to put it back on the ballot and work to get it passed, as is, and then work with DHH and see if they’re willing to put in an animal control program.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.