St. Tammany Parish is trying for a third time to get voter approval to renew sales taxes for the parish jail and courthouse, and once again, Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, a self-styled government watchdog group, is opposing both measures.
Neither development is a surprise. The parish faces an $18 million budget hole if it has to operate and maintain the facilities without the taxes, which expire in March.
The margin of defeat was much narrower in last year's election than in the first defeat, and parish officials announced in September that they would go to the voters again — this time on March 24.
CCST did not take a position on the parish's first try at renewing the two quarter-cent sales taxes. But the group has always been skeptical of taxes, and it opposed the retooled courthouse and jail tax requests — reduced to one-fifth of a cent each — last April. At that time, the group said the parish had not provided detailed enough information about the costs of running both the jail and the justice center.
This time around, CCST members met with parish officials to discuss the taxes, but after what the group's president, Rick Franzo, described as countless hours going over 600 documents, the organization came to the same conclusion, he said.
The group cites a lack of financial prudence on the part of parish government. In a position paper made public Thursday, CCST said that the parish has granted double-digit pay and benefit raises and expanded its legal department.
While the parish says that the taxes are for maintenance and operation of the two buildings, CCST pointed out that the ballots retain language to "acquire and construct." Any new construction should be voted on separately, the group said, noting that the original construction will be completely paid for in March.
Last time around, the parish touted the fact that 10 percent of the justice center tax revenue would be used for St. Tammany's specialty courts — its drug court, sobriety court, family preservation court and re-entry court, to name a few.
But CCST is questioning the effectiveness of such courts in preventing recidivism, citing what it called national research that shows inconsistent results. "Further, we believe that such courts should be approved by the voters," the group said.
As for the parish jail, CCST said new sentencing alternatives are expected to reduce inmate populations, creating "less if any need for a local prison."
It said the state provides higher standards of inmate services at prisons that it operates, paid for in part with taxes from St. Tammany residents.
St. Tammany President Pat Brister fired back Thursday at the citizens group's complaints, saying that parish employee got a cost-of-living raise in 2017 and some employees received merit raises, which together averaged 3 percent.
"This year's budget had no raises, no cost-of-living adjustment, and we have instituted a hiring freeze, where we are down 100 positions as a result," Brister said in a statement. "It is absolutely inaccurate and nonsensical to say otherwise."
Sheriff Randy Smith did not return a call for comment, but Brister also blasted CCST's position on the jail. "The concept of not having a jail is irresponsible and dangerous," she said, adding that the jail goes hand in hand with the justice system to preserve the community's safety.
Smith laid off some employees and did not raise salaries as he had planned in the wake of the jail tax's failure last year.
Judge Rick Swartz, chief judge for the 22nd Judicial District Court, defended the specialty courts, saying that they work. He cited state Supreme Court statistics that show 7 percent recidivism after one year for people who go through drug court and 13 percent after two years, compared to 45 to 50 percent for those who are simply incarcerated. He said it's also less expensive: $4,700 a year for drug court compared to $9,000 a year for incarceration.
CCST noted that the parish hired a Baton Rouge public relations firm, LR3 Consulting, "for $77,800 of your tax dollars to develop a strategy to rebrand and educate" St. Tammany voters on the taxes.
Brister said the firm is helping the parish educate voters about the measures so that they'll make "the best decision for their families."
So far, parish efforts to talk up the latest renewal votes have been low-key. But Brister and her staff have been attending meetings of civic and neighborhood groups and talking with business leaders in what she described as an effort to educate people and dispel falsehoods.
"At this point it seems that some folks will say anything, even when they know it is false," she said.