In an effort to counter anti-tax sentiments, St. Tammany Parish officials have been stumping in recent weeks for two quarter-cent sales taxes for the parish jail and courthouse that are up for renewal on the April 9 ballot.
Parish President Pat Brister has been going to meetings of homeowners associations and civic groups nearly every day, often joined by Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith, who as sheriff-elect will be responsible for the jail when he takes office in July.
Members of the 22nd Judicial District bench also have been speaking out for a 3-mill property tax renewal that supports the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center.
“People have a lot of questions,” Brister said, more than can be easily addressed in a flier, and parish officials are well aware of voters’ reluctance to pass taxes, which has been evident in recent elections.
“If you can’t explain the need to people, it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to fail,” Brister said.
At a Military Road Alliance meeting near Slidell last week, Brister and Smith fielded questions about how much money the dedicated sales taxes bring in — about $11.3 million each annually — and how the revenue is spent.
The St. Tammany Parish Justice Center tax pays for the operations and maintenance of the 285,000-square-foot facility on North Columbia Street in Covington that houses the 22nd Judicial District Court and a number of other parish agencies, including the district attorney, sheriff, clerk of court, registrar of voters, assessor and public defender.
The jail tax pays for the operation and maintenance of the 1,100-bed parish jail, including the salaries and benefits of the Sheriff’s Office employees who work there. The jail, too, is located in Covington.
In both cases, some of the revenue also goes toward retiring construction bonds.
For the Justice Center, those bonds will be paid off in two years, freeing up about $3 million annually. But Brister said several big-ticket maintenance items, such as a new roof, have been deferred until the bonds are paid off. Future plans also include a 125,000-square-foot expansion, though Brister said any additions would not be built until the agencies have outgrown their existing space.
The tax revenue pays for security at the building, utilities, janitorial services and other operational costs. It also pays for the operation and maintenance of the Justice Center annex in the Towers Building in Slidell.
Both taxes, which are up for 20-year renewals, do not expire until 2018. But if they are voted down, Brister said, the parish would not be able to make up the lost revenue from its $14 million general fund.
Serious cutting of services would be required, she said, and that would probably mean closing offices in the Towers Building that enable residents on the eastern side of the parish to have ready access to the clerk of court, assessor and other officials.
Smith said the quarter-cent tax for the jail also is critical to its continued operation. If the tax fails, he said, he would have to close down more than half of the jail and lay off employees.
The money generated by the tax doesn’t pay the entire cost of running the jail, which he pegged at close to $18.5 million a year. Medical costs alone run about $3 million, he said.
Bonds for the jail are close to being paid off, too, and that will free up about $3 million a year in revenue. But the jail also needs repairs and upgrades, Smith said. Those include roof replacement and an upgrade and expansion of the sewage treatment system. Security measures, such as replacing the maximum-security door system and additions to the razor wire perimeter fence, also are on the list of things that need to be done.
Currently, the jail houses about 300 federal inmates and 300 state inmates. The rest of the beds are filled with defendants awaiting trial in 22nd Judicial District Court.
The tax measures have drawn opposition from Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which is urging voters to reject both sales taxes and the 3-mill tax for the Juvenile Detention Center.
On its Facebook page, the group suggested that the Justice Center is larger than similar facilities in much bigger places, and it questioned the expansion plans. As for the jail, it said that perhaps Smith should shut it down or downsize it. “Empire building needs to stop and taxpayers need a break,” the group said.
But Brister said that so far, all the groups she has addressed, including the Military Road Alliance, have come out in support of the renewals.
The board of the St. Tammany Chamber West will vote next week, CEO Lacey Toledano said, but its Governmental Affairs Committee has recommended a favorable vote.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.