Pat Brister St. Tammany Parish President (2).JPG

Pat Brister

The St. Tammany Parish Council took a first step this week toward revoking the controversial sales tax hikes imposed in several economic development districts at the beginning of 2017, but it won't vote on ending them until next month.

Citing opposition from the business community and constituents, Parish President Pat Brister announced last month that she would ask the council to put an end to the ¾-cent taxes that are being collected in seven special districts.

The additional taxes brought the total amount levied in the districts, which include some existing shopping centers, to 10½ percent.

The St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce had asked the council in late August to remove the additional sales taxes, a request that initially met resistance from parish officials.

But Brister reversed course last month amid concerns that opposition to the additional taxes in the seven small districts could hurt the chances of renewing parishwide sales taxes for the parish's courthouse and jail, which will go before voters for a third time in March.

A pair of ordinances to remove the additional sales taxes were introduced Thursday. They'll be up for a vote at the council's Dec. 7 meeting.

District Attorney Warren Montgomery, who had asked the state Attorney General's Office for an opinion on the constitutionality of the taxes, said Thursday that he will withdraw that request if the taxes are removed. "If they remove the taxes, then the issue will be moot," he said.

The Parish Council also adopted a resolution calling a special election March 24 to authorize two 1/5-cent sales taxes, one for the St. Tammany Justice Center and the other for the jail.

The taxes have failed twice before, and audience member Charles Goodwin questioned the council's decision to put them back on the ballot.

"I've been trying to make myself aware enough, but I cannot come up with numbers to persuade me one way or the other," Goodwin said. He said too little of the tax revenue would be directed to specialty courts, which he supports as a way to rehabilitate people, and too much would go to administrative costs.

He also said that capital costs for the construction of the courthouse are set to expire.

But council Chairman Steve Stefancik told Goodwin that the parish is required by law to pay for operation of both the jail and the courthouse, and that won't change if the taxes are rejected. Instead, he said, the parish will have to make deep cuts in other services that are supported by the parish's general fund.

Councilman Richard Tanner said that even after the building is paid for, capital costs will continue. "The building is 20 years old. We're going to have to start replacing stuff," he said.

But Goodwin said that voters have already defeated the taxes twice and asked what the "vehicle" is to put them on the ballot again.

"We're the elected governing body, and that's part of our responsibility," Stefancik replied.

Councilwoman Michele Blanchard said the council was elected to protect the quality of life in St. Tammany Parish, adding that the council represents not only the people who vote but all residents.

Goodwin said the decision to ask voters a third time to approve the taxes "creates resentment on our end."

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.