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)

With early voting underway for the April 9 election, juvenile justice officials on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain are hoping they have done enough in recent weeks to persuade voters to support the tax renewal needed to operate the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center.

The detention center’s staff and commission have been seeking favor with civic groups and governmental bodies to make their case for the renewal. In November, voters overwhelmingly rejected the 10-year, 3-mill tax renewal in all five parishes the center serves — Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington.

A media blitz touting the center’s services also will begin this week, after the commission meets to approve the advertisements and expenses for the campaign, said David Merlin Duke, chairman of the center’s commission.

If the tax proposal fails again, the commission would miss the deadline for the 2016 tax rolls and there would be no way to bring in tax revenue until at least January 2018, which the commission’s financial adviser David Danel said is unlikely and would require a successful third try for a renewal.

The property tax, levied at 2.75 mills each of the past four years, generates about $7.8 million per year of the commission’s $8.2 million budget. The commission has $13.3 million in reserves and can expect another $500,000 from sheriffs’ sales and $100,000 in court costs through June 30, the end of the fiscal year, Danel said.

The commission must keep money on hand for post-employment benefits, building upkeep, insurance and other obligations that would continue even after the center closed, he said.

“We also don’t know what would happen with the kids who are already being housed there,” Danel said. “If a judge has ordered us to house a kid until trial, I don’t know that we can just release them.”

Costs associated with any transfer to another facility could fall on the district, Danel said.

“I don’t know what our financial obligations might be for that,” Danel said. “That’s an area of expertise we’ll have to get help in, if the tax fails.”

Retaining staff after two losses at the polls would be difficult as well, said Duke, the commission chairman.

“For most employees, a hiccup in a single paycheck can throw a wrench for many months into their ability to pay bills and maintain their households,” Duke said.

The center has 96 workers — 67 operations staff, seven administrators, 13 teachers funded through the Tangipahoa Parish school system and a handful of contract medical personnel. On average, 750 youths annually would have to be sent elsewhere or returned to the communities pending trial, Executive Director Joseph Dominick said.

District officials say most of the youths are detained on allegations of crimes involving property, drugs, or other nonviolent acts. About 12 percent of those held in 2015 were accused of violent crimes, including murder, attempted murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery and aggravated assault.

“These are not kids that are skipping school. These are not kids that stole a pack of bubble gum,” Dominick said.

In addition to basic necessities of food, clothing and medical care, Dominick said, the facility provides education, mental health counseling, psychiatric treatment and social skills development to show teens how their behavior affects themselves and others.

“The entire program is designed to change criminal thinking,” Dominick said. “When you send kids out into the community with social skills and that level of understanding, you reduce the likelihood of them re-offending and going back into the criminal justice system. And ultimately, that’s what saves taxpayer dollars.”

The Livingston and St. Tammany parish councils and St. Helena Parish Police Jury have passed resolutions supporting the proposition, as has the Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce and committees of the chambers in St. Tammany West and Livingston Parish.

The tax proposal has found opposition as well.

The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany board and advisers has urged voters to consider whether the juvenile justice commission has justified its request for the renewal. The group’s board expressed concern that the commission seeks renewal of the 3-mill tax, which is projected to generate $9.55 million per year, when it has consistently added to its surplus by levying only 2.75 mills.

“Not to mention the theft of $2 million (by) an employee in 2011,” the CCST board said in its written statement. “In 2015, we spent $660,000 on a generator system for this complex, which houses 60 juveniles (average daily population). Obviously, we have a lot of extra money to burn!”

Danel, the financial adviser, said the commission changed its accounting procedures after former secretary Brenda Bickford stole roughly $1.9 million from the agency. Following Bickford’s release from jail last year, the commission began receiving garnishments from her retirement, he said. The agency has recouped about $6,000 thus far.

The commission also kept tighter reins on the facility’s administration following a series of retaliation and discrimination lawsuits employees filed in recent years and, last month, appointed Dominick as the new executive director.

Dominick said that if Louisiana raises the age to enter the adult criminal justice system from 17 to 18 years old, the youth facility will need the additional money that levying the full 3 mills would provide. The commission budgets for an average daily population of up to 75 youths, but the facility can hold up to 133.

Taking in more youths would require hiring more staff to maintain the staff-to-child ratio required under a federal consent decree issued in the mid-1990s and state licensing regulations, Dominick said.

“Unfortunately, we just haven’t stayed in the public eye enough,” Dominick said. “I feel like we’ve caught up on 20 years of media relations in just the past month, and that’s frustrating. We’re a public agency, and we’re doing good work. We’ve had rough times, like anyone else, but we’ve never had issues with the care of our kids. And I want people to understand that this place is just as important to public safety as their local police department or fire district.”

Advocate staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this report.

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