Livingston Parish officials ask voters to take another look at three taxes rejected in 2014 _lowres

Livingston Parish Health Unit

A multimillion-dollar error on Livingston Parish ballots could derail one issue before Election Day even arrives.

The Parish Health Unit is trying to renew its 5-mill property tax for 10 more years, but the proposition described on the ballot that voters will see on Tuesday lists the expected amount of money to be collected at less than a third of its actual worth, according to the Assessor’s Office.

Now, Council Chairman Ricky Goff says he will ask his fellow council members to set aside the vote, if approved, and send the issue back up to voters next year. And he says the parish health unit should pony for some of the cost of a new election.

The health unit, on South Frost Road, is administered through the state Department of Health and Hospitals but funded through local, state and federal money.

The proposition states the millage will raise an estimated $763,782 annually.

Parish deputy assessor Kristyn Childers said a 5-mill tax would actually be worth up to $2,363,628 at the current rate.

Over the course of 10 years, the published rate and the assessor’s estimated rate using 2014 numbers amounts to a $16 million difference.

The health unit, meanwhile, already holds millions of dollars in unspent parish taxes collected over years, with no specific plans for how to spend it.

On Thursday, parish officials pointed fingers over who reported the inaccurate number on the tax renewal.

Parish financial advisor Jim Ryan said he was unaware of the incorrect figures when first approached by The Advocate.

Upon researching the numbers himself, he reached the following conclusion: “It’s clearly wrong. It’s a mistake.”

He said the number was provided by the health unit under former director Sandra Sibley.

“I don’t know where she got that number from,” Ryan said.

Sibley, who retired from the unit in July, said she provided the rate but not the amount to be collected by the tax.

“I personally never submitted any numbers to Jim Ryan or the parish,” she said.

“Any number figures he got, he didn’t get from me,” Sibley said, adding that she was not aware of anyone else at the health unit or DHH who would have supplied a specific dollar amount.

By the time the issue was presented to the parish council for approval, the wrong numbers had made their way into the proposition. Parish leaders were not able to correct the language before early voting began.

“I think there’s a real good argument to be made — did (the number quoted in the proposition) sway the vote?” Ryan said.

The parish council must ratify the polls before a tax is actually levied. Goff and Ryan are planning to ask council members not to accept the health unit millage even if it is voted through.

“Whether it passes or fails is irrelevant at this point,” Goff said.

If the issue is included on a special election ballot in May and passes, the unit’s tax collection will not be interrupted, Ryan said.

Special elections in the parish cost about $1,250 per precinct, said Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

Livingston has 78 precincts. Therefore, the cost of a May election would run approximately $97,500. Goff wants the health unit to put up the money for their portion of the ballot.

“Unfortunately, the health unit … sent us the wrong numbers,” he said.

The council chairman supports local funding for the organization, saying “we’ve got to fund the health unit, period.”

But he also expressed interest in discussing how the unit’s money can be best spent. Perhaps in a future election voters can decide whether to rededicate one of the unit’s 5 mills toward funding animal control, he suggested. The parish will run out of funding for animal control by 2016 unless it can find a new source of revenue.

The health unit it poised to sit atop a $7.6 million surplus in parish funds at the end of 2015 if its millage is extended, according to projections in the parish budget. As of the end of this year, they are projected to have $6.6 million of parish funds in the bank.

Besides the millage, the health unit receives about $4 million in state and federal funding every year and about $78,000 in revenues from payment and fees.

The unit has collected roughly $2 million in parish taxes annually in recent years and is expected to do so again in 2014, according to the parish’s projected year-end budget.

The unit is budgeted to spend $1.1 million by year’s end. Most of their parish expenditures go toward the salaries and benefits of 11.5 parish-funded positions. Local millages also pay for utilities and equipment, as well as the construction cost of the unit’s building, which is expected to be paid off in 2015, said parish finance director Jennifer Meyers.

She said the state health agency can spend the rest of the funds at their discretion.

“They could do more. … They could do whatever they want with the money,” she said.

She referred specific questions to Jennifer Dykes, who Meyers described as the manager of the health unit.

Dykes said on Wednesday she had held her position only for about a month and was unable to answer questions about the health unit’s budget and surplus. When pressed for more information, including her title, she stopped answering questions and deferred to state-level DHH employees.

Assistant Secretary for Public Health J.T. Lane said parish units elsewhere in the state have paid for programs like mosquito abatement, animal control and education on infectious disease. They can take on health initiatives such as teaching children about nutrition, hiring coaches to teach physical education and employing wellness coordinators to work with local businesses to help their employees develop healthy lifestyles. The Livingston unit currently performs health inspections at restaurants and public buildings, oversees water quality and provides immunization shots. They also participate in a federal program that provides food and nutrition counseling to pregnant women, infants and young children, Lane said.

The parish used to have two other units in Denham Springs and Albany, but they closed about 15 years ago when state funding dried up, Sibley said.

Lane said DHH “would be happy” to speak with parish leadership about more programs that might promote health among residents.

However, the unit has posted multimillion dollar surpluses for several years, and Lane was not aware of any specific projects planned for the parish. Nor was Sibley aware of any new health initiatives in the works when she retired.

“Maybe they’re not aware of what’s possible,” Lane said.