On Saturday, St. Tammany voters will decide whether or not renew three existing taxes for another 20 years. While this is a $500 million decision, attention and justification has been limited. Of the three taxes, only the property tax millage for the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Center should be approved. The other two sales taxes, first approved 20 years ago to build modern courthouse and jail facilities, should be rejected. Yes on No.1; no on Nos. 2 and 3.
The juvenile justice center needs the 3-mill property tax to remain open. The $8 million raised across five parishes provides 85 percent of its annual funding. If the 10-year renewal is rejected, the facility will be forced to close. What does this mean? Because juvenile offenders cannot be placed in regular jails, they will, in many cases, be released right back into the community. This will sharply increase the costs in all parishes for security, justice and education. The juvenile center needs cost-effective management and a strong oversight board. In recent years, that oversight board has asked for 8 percent less than authorized. While underutilized currently, contemplated changes in the age for juvenile vs. adult handling would sharply increase needs. Vote yes on No. 1.
In contrast, the jail and courthouse sales taxes have served their original purpose. Both taxes were enacted 20 years ago to build a modern $65 million courthouse and $20 million jail. The construction bonds are paid off. Continuing maintenance costs for the buildings are a small fraction of the $11 million annually generated by each of the two 0.25 percent sales taxes. Even the parish budget five-year capital improvement projects envisioning another parking building ($15 million) and replacement carpet ($ 1 million) are far less than the proposed annual sales tax collections.
Similar logic applies for the separate “jail expansion” sales tax that provided $10.6 million (or 30 percent) of the sheriff’s total 2015 budget. Actual use of the “jail expansion fund” is some 90 percent for routine funding of a $20 million annual jail operations budget. Such costs should be budgeted annually, compete with other priorities, and be funded by necessary millage adjustments rather than renewal for 20 years of a sales tax stated to be for “jail expansion.”
Regressive sales taxes are a greater burden to average working people. Operational costs should be part of a disciplined annual budget process funded through property tax millages. Taxpayers deserve forthright explanations and regular opportunities to consider government funding needs and how they are sourced. Twenty-year renewals of regressive sales taxes that far exceed needs for “jail expansion” or courthouse “maintenance” should be rejected. Vote no on Nos. 2 and 3.