A panel appointed to address an $18 million shortfall in St. Tammany Parish's budget is recommending fee hikes and the sale or lease of various parish properties, among other measures, to help close the gap, Parish President Pat Brister said Thursday.

While the group's recommendations don’t specifically address staffing, Brister said layoffs are imminent and will affect 30 to 40 parish workers beginning next year.

Brister appointed 10 people to the budget group last month following voters' third rejection of a pair of sales tax renewals to run the parish jail and courthouse.

The panel met five times, she said, studying the St. Tammany budget and looking at finances in other parishes including Jefferson, Lafayette, Caddo and Ascension.

Three members of the group — Kyle France, president of Kehoe-France School; Kim Carver, senior vice president at Gulf Coast Bank & Trust; and Will Wainwright, chancellor of Northshore Technical Community College — were on hand Thursday to discuss their report.

The fat had already been cut from the budget presented to the group, France said, leaving the group with hard decisions. 

“I expected to find lots of low-hanging fruit,” said Carver, who agreed that the parish had already made significant efforts to cut costs, including a hiring freeze.

The bottom line, the group said, is that St. Tammany must focus on essential needs that the public has agreed to pay for: roads, drainage and utilities. A two-cent sales tax pays for roads and drainage, while utilities are supported by user fees.

While Brister anticipates cutting jobs beginning next year, the parish will actually fill vacant jobs in its Public Works Department, which has seen the most attrition since the hiring freeze was put in place.

The Parish Council will begin to consider which specific steps to implement as soon as next month, when work begins on the 2019 budget.

One thing that the panel didn’t suggest was going back to voters for a tax increase, but it did say that a permanent funding source for state-mandated costs — namely running the jail and courthouse — is “essential.”

Brister said the parish can squeak by for two to three years, in large part by using up reserves that have been accumulated over time. But then there will be a drastic drop-off in services, she said.

“People have to decide if that’s the parish they want or are they ready to look at it again,” she said, referring to the failed tax proposals, which called for one-fifth-cent sales taxes to operate the two parish buildings. 

Dipping into reserves will leave St. Tammany without the type of cushion that helped it recover from Hurricane Katrina, Brister said.

Parish government isn’t alone in needing to make reductions. The advisory panel said the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney's Office and 22nd Judicial District Court must also be prepared to cut costs.

The group raised the possibility that the parish may bill those agencies for support services it provides to them, such as human resources and technology.

The budget group has offered to meet with those agencies to provide the same kind of overview it gave to the parish, Brister said.

The parish should also look at unloading some assets, including buildings that might be sold, leased or put under cooperative operation agreements, the panel said.

Those include the St. Tammany Parish Fairgrounds in Covington and the Towers Building in Slidell.

Brister said those sites would likely be leased to others. Parish services now offered at the Towers Building will not be ended but will be moved to another eastern St. Tammany location.

Other properties the parish could sell include the building housing the parish public defenders office in Covington, the levee board building in Slidell, the Bush Community Center and the polling location on La. 40 in Folsom.

Another high-profile building that the parish has talked about selling — the old courthouse on Boston Street in Covington — will continue to be used as the parish’s emergency operations center. Plans to build a new headquarters off La. 434 have been put on hold.

The parish president also suggested that fees could be hiked in the Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Environmental Services. The parish has not increased permit fees in 15 years, France said.

Brister said that St. Tammany’s fees are low compared with those in other parishes, citing the cost of animal licensing tags, which cost $5 in St. Tammany and $25 in Jefferson Parish.

Brister said officials will visit with business groups and other organizations to talk about the need for fee increases.

“It’s a PR job,” she said.