The St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office, the parish library system and agencies that assist the elderly and developmentally disabled will all see their 2015 millage rates increase following votes Thursday by the St. Tammany Parish Council.
Last year, the council, which sets the millage rates for 14 taxing bodies, was firm in keeping rates well below the maximums approved by voters, although at the time, only the library system sought an increase — unsuccessfully.
The council hewed to the same fiscal policy for the most part Thursday, keeping rates the same as in 2014 for 10 of the taxing bodies under its aegis, including six lighting districts.
Several speakers urged the council to be careful in making any decisions that would increase the tax burden on residents. Rob Maness, who ran for a U.S. Senate seat in the fall, asked the council to exercise fiscal restraint and conservative principles, saying tax rates will otherwise creep up every year.
Peter Egan, chairman of the St. Tammany Republican Executive Committee, said St. Tammany has one of the highest tax rates in the state and residents feel overtaxed.
Councilman Reid Falconer and Councilwoman Maureen O’Brien made similar arguments. Falconer noted that businesses do not have the benefit of a homestead exemption and feel the pain of millage increases more acutely. O’Brien said some of her constituents are talking about moving because of the taxes they must pay.
But advocates turned out in large numbers to speak in favor of the library system’s request to collect 6.29 mills. That’s slightly less than the 6.33 mills authorized by voters but significantly more than the 5.35 mills the council authorized in 2014 and 2013.
Argiro Morgan, president of the St. Tammany Parish Library Board, said St. Tammany has the highest per capita income in the state but does not rank even in the middle of the pack for the financial support its libraries receive.
Library officials said the $1.7 million generated by the increase would be used for capital expenditures. Donald Westmoreland, executive director of the system, said the parish’s libraries are not large enough for the increase in population St. Tammany has experienced and many of them are old and in need of repairs.
It takes years of saving money from operational funds to pay for such work, Library Board member Bill Allin said. “We need a new roof and air-conditioner in Covington and a new roof in Mandeville,’’ he said.
Councilman Jerry Binder said voters had approved a 6.33-mill tax for libraries in 2007, but the system has never collected the full amount, which he said has saved taxpayers more than $10 million.
“They were good stewards,” he said. “I know the buildings are deteriorating and capital improvements cost a lot of money. I’m going to support this.’’
The Parish Council voted 11-2 in favor of the increase for the library system, with Falconer and O’Brien voting “no.” Councilman Marty Gould was absent.
The St. Tammany Council on Aging — known as COAST — and STARC, which serves developmentally disabled people, split the revenue from a 1.69-mill tax that they wanted the council to increase to 1.99 mills.
Bill Davis, the STARC treasurer, said the agency has reduced its costs by 5 percent, even with an 11 percent increase in clients.
COAST Executive Director Julie Agan said her agency serves 2,838 elderly residents who rely on it for services such as transportation to grocery stores and doctor’s offices, grass-cutting and hot meals. An increase in the millage will allow COAST to serve an additional 300 people now on a waiting list, she said.
The council voted to approve the increase to 1.99 mills, with only Falconer voting “no.”
Coroner Charles Preston also appeared before the council to ask that his agency’s millage, reduced sharply in the wake of a corruption scandal under his predecessor, be restored to 3.38 mills — less than the 4-mill maximum approved by voters in 2004 but more than the 2.96 mills the Parish Council approved in 2013, with the promise of revisiting the rate in the future.
Preston said his office has spent money responsibly and the additional tax money would enable him to continue to pay for a second forensic pathologist and add services such as a sexual-assault response team.
The increase was adopted 11-2, with Falconer and O’Brien voting “no.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.