The Bureau of Governmental Research has come out against a one-fifth cent sales tax for the St. Tammany Justice Center but is supporting another fifth of a penny sales tax for the parish jail, both of which will go before voters March 24.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, Parish Council members sworn in _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- The Covington Police Honor Guard posts the colors Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, during inauguration ceremonies at the St. Tammany Parish Justice Center in Covington. 

The government watchdog group said that parish officials have not clearly shown how much revenue is needed to meet the courthouse's future operating and capital needs.

"In addition, the proposition dedicates a portion of revenue to the Specialty Courts which, despite any benefits they provide to the community and the local criminal justice system, currently are self-sustaining and are not a mandatory function of the district court," the report said.

BGR said voters should let the courthouse tax expire and require the parish to come back with a tax proposal in November or December that it can prove is appropriately scaled based on a clear plan for future spending.

By contrast, the group said that failure of the proposed jail tax would reduce parish services in other areas and potentially undermine jail operations and the quality of law enforcement.

The proposed 10-year renewal would secure the future of the jail at a slightly reduced cost to taxpayers, the report said.

The proposed renewal would leave some jail costs unfunded, BGR said, and based on projections from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, the jail will need additional funding to offset future deficits and make necessary capital investments in jail facilities.

Each of the taxes are expected to generate $9.5 million, according to parish officials.

“I find it ironic that a New Orleans based organization is telling St. Tammany voters not to support our criminal justice system, a system that has been so effective in keeping our citizens safe and secure," Parish President Pat Brister said.

"I cannot imagine what agenda would allow this decision. While we appreciate their looking at these issues, their report on the Justice Center is factually inaccurate, even though we provided them with all of the data. At the end of the day this is about public safety for the citizens of our parish. I will always put the public safety of the families who live here above all else,” she said.

A BGR summary of the report said that it had requested a projection of future tax revenues and expenditures during the research and drafting of its report, but the parish had not prepared a projection and didn't provide one at that time. 

Shortly before BGR finalized its report, the parish provided a calculation of future revenues and expenditures based on an earlier BGR estimate, the summary said.

"However, it does not appear that the parish has shared the calculation with the public or that the Parish Council has considered it. The calculation does not address operating efficiencies or explain the need to fully restore the 2018 Justice Center budget cuts," the summary said, adding that the parish had not created the calculation when determining the tax rate for the current or past renewal propositions.

"If a taxing authority seeks to impose a tax, the authority should justify to taxpayers the necessity of the money. It should also furnish a clear spending plan that specifically informed the development of the tax proposition and accounts for the new revenue," the summary said.

Voters have twice rejected measures to fund the facilities, voting down renewals at the current rate of a quarter cent in April of 2016 and rejecting the reduced measures last April. 

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