An effort by a new committee of law enforcement leaders to ask taxpayers to fund crime-fighting initiatives in East Baton Rouge Parish could result in “devastating effects” for the city-parish, Mayor-President Kip Holden said Tuesday.
Holden’s comments came one day after the Crime Fighting/Prevention Committee, of which he is a member, met for the first time without him to develop a list of priorities for the various law enforcement agencies in the parish.
The committee compiled a preliminary list of about $500 million capital projects and operational expenses on Monday, including a new Parish Prison, juvenile services facility, downtown misdemeanor jail and truancy center.
It also included costs for 50 additional Baton Rouge police officers, operational expenses for the District Attorney’s Office and other equipment and programming funding.
The $500 million of law enforcement needs is a jump from the $298 million dedicated to public safety proposed in Holden’s recent capital improvements proposal worth a total of $748 million.
The law enforcement committee could ask the Metro Council to send a tax to voters in April to support its needs.
Holden, who sent two representatives in his place at the first committee meeting, said Tuesday that asking taxpayers to pay for operational expenses is bucking the national trend.
“It’s breaking the mold of what happens if you look at government across the country,” Holden said. “When they have problems with operating expenses, they either make cuts or lay off people.”
Holden’s $748 million capital improvements tax package, which the council decided not to send to voters, was to be paid for by issuing bonds. But Holden said he’s concerned about the use of bonds to pay for operational costs included in the committee’s “wish list,” adding that such use could affect the parish’s strong credit rating.
Holden’s bond issue only included infrastructure projects. If approved by voters, it would have used a combination of sales taxes and property taxes to pay off the bonds.
“If we put this all under the umbrella of the city-parish, I’m concerned about our credit-worthiness because of the amount of debt being added to the city-parish coffers,” he said. “Frankly, it just sets a bad precedent for how we run a government.”
Holden’s tax package was prohibited from using bonds for operational costs, Bond Counsel Richard Leibowitz said.
But Leibowitz said the sheriff, who has a Law Enforcement District allowing him to go directly to voters for tax approval, can issue bonds for operational expenses.
Holden also said it’s not the right time to be spending money to hire more people.
“In a time when you need to be lean and mean, you’re asking somebody who may not even have a job to pay for other people,” Holden said. “It’s like we (the government) can’t take care of you, but you’re going to take care of our own.”
Holden said the infrastructure improvements in his capital improvements tax package should have taken priority over increasing agency budgets.
“If you have 78 bridges that need to be replaced and you choose to put more people in staff and pay raises versus taking care of critical infrastructure needs, then our priorities are screwed up,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker, one of the council members who initiated the law enforcement panel, disagrees with the mayor’s priorities.
“He just refuses to realize how bad crime is and assist us in protecting the citizens of this parish,” Walker said. “We’re seeking solutions, and he is criticizing a process that he refuses to participate in.”
Committee Chairman and Councilman Trae Welch found it ironic that Holden would disagree with the need to hire more people when one of those requests for additional personnel came from Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White, who was hired by the mayor.
White said Monday the already understaffed Police Department needs 50 additional officers to address attrition expected through 2014.
Welch added that the committee would address public safety more effectively than Holden’s capital improvements tax package would have.
Holden’s proposal contained $298 million for public safety projects including the new Parish Prison, juvenile service center and a new shared headquarters for City Police and the Sheriff’s Office.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said it’s “disingenuous to say that I am advocating for raises for my employees,” in response to Holden’s comments.
“Without additional funding for this office, instead of being able to support increased law enforcement efforts, we will need to look for a reduction in staff,” Moore said.
Moore, earlier this month, came close to putting a property tax on the November ballot to fund operations in his office, which is losing about $450,000 of local, state and federal funds.
But Moore decided he would rather be included in a further-reaching crime-fighting tax package.