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Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister speaks during the opening of a new Children's Hospital clinic Thursday, July 14, 2016, on Louisiana 21 in Covington. The center, staffed with 23 pediatric specialists, has the capacity to see about 800 patients a month, said Mary Perrin, president and CEO of Children's Hospital.

SCOTT THRELKELD

Up until Saturday, St. Tammany Parish officials had a political problem: how to sell two sales tax renewals to voters who rejected them by large margins a year ago.

Now, with a second defeat for the taxes, though by much smaller margins, officials have an even thornier problem to solve: how to operate the parish jail and courthouse out a $15.8 million general fund that already pays for running the parish government, from the parish president and Parish Council offices to departments like finance, planning, human resources, technology and others.

"This is an $18 million gap in operating and maintenance costs," Parish President Pat Brister said in a statement Monday, noting that state law requires the parish to pay for the jail and courthouse.

That will likely mean cuts in other areas, she said. Her administration is looking at operating expenses, pending projects and personnel to figure out where the parish can cut to make up for the loss of the sales tax revenue.

The parish does have some breathing room. The two sales taxes, each of which now brings in $11.5 million a year, don't expire until March.

"We have an obligation to continue to run parish government with the funding we have, and when we re-evaluate our projects, every option is on the table," Brister said.

Whether that includes going to the voters a third time is unclear. The taxes lost by razor-thin margins Saturday, especially compared to the drubbing they took last year. But parish officials had taken steps to make the taxes more palatable, reducing each from a quarter-cent to one-fifth of a cent and shortening their duration from 20 years to 10.

Part of the courthouse revenue also was to be dedicated to the 22nd Judicial District Court's specialty courts, and judges turned out at public meetings to extol the programs as tools for reducing recidivism.

Judge Ray Childress said Monday that the specialty courts, which are now funded by a variety of grants, will continue. But he called the defeat disappointing. Grants can dry up, he said, pointing to a reduction in state funding for drug courts last year that led St. Tammany's drug court to refuse new clients for a month while officials made sure they had the resources to continue.

For the courts, the tax defeat isn't a question of losing funding that was already in place but losing an opportunity to have a sustainable long-term source of money, he said.

Figuring out how to operate and maintain the 14-year-old courthouse isn't the judges' responsibility, Childress said.

But it is the parish's burden, and one place the budget ax is likely to fall is on the parish offices in the Towers Building in Slidell. Several agencies have offices in that building, including the clerk of court's and registrar of voters' offices.

Prior to the election, Brister said that closing those offices would be necessary if the taxes failed. A mailer sent to Slidell voters pointed out that losing those offices would mean they'll have to drive to western St. Tammany to do business with those agencies.

But parish officials avoided any specifics in talking about the election losses Monday.

Brister isn't alone in facing tough decisions following the defeats. St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith had said before the election that he would likely have to cut the number of jail employees, now at 200, in half if the jail tax failed.

Smith was circumspect in his post-election comments, posting a statement on the agency's Facebook page that said, "The voters have spoken. I will respect their decision. We will move forward and make the necessary changes in order to operate within our new budget." 

But Capt. Daniel Seuzeneau, a spokesman for Smith, said it's too early to start announcing changes and that to do so would be a "knee-jerk reaction." He also noted that funding the jail is the parish's responsibility.

While the parish was facing its second loss in a row on the two parishwide taxes, a Pearl River recreation district saw its proposed millage go down for the third time — by a margin of two votes.

Recreation District No. 7 was seeking a 10-year, 3.5-mill tax that would have generated $125,000 a year for operations.

Earl Graves, who serves on the district commission, said last week that without the tax, the district has had to dip into reserves to run the heavily used Poitevent Park. It had hoped to use that money for expansion.

St. Tammany Recreation District No. 14, which serves Madisonville, Goodbee, parts of unincorporated Covington and the southern part of Folsom, had one of the few successful tax requests on Saturday's ballot, a 10-year, 4.93-mill property tax to pay for operations and maintenance of Coquille Park. It was adopted by a narrow 51 percent.

Executive Director Richard Bentley-Smith said he was pleased that the voters showed faith in the district by renewing the tax. But voters rejected another Recreation District 14 item on the ballot, a $7.8 million bond issue to pay for improvements.

That money would have allowed the district to complete 90 percent of the projects in its strategic plan, he said. The recreation district board will meet May 8 to discuss what its next steps will be, he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.