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)

The stunning, across-the-board failure of the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice District’s property tax renewal on Saturday leaves the district with few options for keeping open the doors of the north shore’s only juvenile detention center.

The Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission, which oversees the detention center, has squirreled away $10 million in reserve funds and can expect another $7.5 million or so in property tax collections for 2015 — a combination that could potentially carry the facility for up to two more years.

But the resounding defeat of the 3-mill, 10-year tax, which provides more than 85 percent of the center’s funding, left the commission’s president wondering aloud whether the body should give voters another try in the spring or start planning for the facility’s closure.

The proposition failed in all five parishes the center serves — Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington — by margins ranging from 8 to 28 percentage points. In fact, the measure carried only 24 of 372 precincts and tied in three others.

The results stand in stark contrast to those from a decade ago, when voters in all five parishes approved the tax, albeit just barely in Livingston and St. Tammany.

“It was a handy defeat across the board,” commission President David Merlin Duke said Monday. “You really can’t point to it being a rich parish, poor parish thing, or those more versus less educated. And it seems to have lost in all the municipalities, so it’s not a rural versus city thing either.”

Duke said multiple factors could have contributed to the tax renewal’s failure: voters possibly believing it was a new tax, the Legislature’s requirement that the full revenue potential be spelled out on the ballot even though the tax is assessed across five parishes, and the presence of other contentious items on the ballot, including other tax measures and, in St. Tammany, nine home rule charter amendments.

Asked whether the commission would put the measure back on the ballot in the spring, Duke said the body would “make the best-informed decision given our options, and hopefully people will see what’s necessary and what’s not on their tax bill, and they might reconsider that this is necessary.”

The next regular meeting of the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission is Dec. 9.

The commission will weigh all options, Duke said, including analyzing current funding and laying out a timeline for the detention center’s potential closure.

That timeline would almost certainly include closing the center’s doors before the commission actually runs out of money, he said.

The commission may decide to hold onto enough funds to maintain the building, even if it’s empty, in case future voters choose to support a new tax, he said. And it will have to consider legacy costs, such as retirement fund obligations owed to employees.

The commission also may consider taking on other juvenile justice-related activities after the center’s closure.

“Because at some point, even if the commission is no longer collecting the tax, we will still be collecting our court cost fees,” Duke said. “Those aren’t enough to run the center, but we could host seminars or summits related to juvenile justice issues.”

Another option might be to fund the detention center’s operations by billing the local jurisdictions whose juveniles are housed there, Duke said. “We’d have to determine the cost of the center and then divide it up based on the number of juveniles,” he said.

Otherwise, officials of those local jurisdictions — sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys and judges — would have to find another place to house juvenile offenders, he said.

The center can house up to 133 offenders, although the average daily population hovers around half that, and it employs about 100 people, Duke said.

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, of the 21st Judicial District in Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes, said the best option is to put the tax back on the ballot.

“I think that the officials who are stakeholders are going to have to spend some effort into making the public aware of how important that facility is to our area,” Perrilloux said. “In an area where younger people can be very violent and serious problems in our community, we need a place where they can be detained while their proceedings are ongoing.”

Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard echoed that sentiment, saying through a spokeswoman that he supports the detention center and considers it “a well-run facility that fills a great need.”

Livingston Parish alone placed 55 juveniles in the Florida Parishes facility between July 2014 and June 2015, said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lori Steele.

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