Livingston Parish residents heading to the polls Tuesday will decide the fate of a new half-cent sales tax that Sheriff Jason Ard says would fund a law enforcement officer in every school.
The idea emerged after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, raised fears that a similar tragedy could happen here.
The sales tax is expected to raise $8 to $9.4 million next year and would last in perpetuity. It is designated to fund the operations of the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office, "including, but not limited to, stationing Sheriff deputies in public schools throughout the Parish of Livingston in order to provide for the safety and security of the students and faculty therein," according to the measure's language.
School resource officers are specially trained law enforcement officers who patrol schools, mentor kids and investigate fights, drugs and signs of possible abuse at home.
If the tax passes, Livingston would be the state's third parish to post officers on every campus.
Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard is ramping up his efforts to pass a half-cent sales tax that would fund his department and more school res…
The ballot measure pits against each other two strong sentiments in Livingston Parish. Many people are strong supporters of law enforcement and the schools, and recent school shootings have exacerbated fears that it could happen here. But residents have long been critical of new taxes, giving a thumbs down in recent years to tax proposals to build new school buildings and do drainage work in flood-prone areas.
Ard has promised to use the collected tax money to staff each of the 46 school campuses in the parish with law enforcement officers, plus more officers as supervisors and substitutes. He has estimated the cost of the program at around $5.5 million annually.
The tax represents a major step-up of law enforcement presence in the schools and a sizable change in the sheriff's annual budget. At present, just 10 officers who work in the parish schools. The sheriff has a budget of approximately $30 million without the new tax.
The sheriff, Livingston Parish School Board and a pro-tax political action committee called Safe Schools for Kids have been pushing the tax in recent weeks. There's also been unorganized opposition from some residents who say they are skeptical of the language of the proposal and its potential revenues.
Ard and Livingston Parish Superintendent Rick Wentzel have been speaking at churches, schools and community groups around the parish in support of the tax.
Many of the schools also sent home letters with students that say a "logical and effective response" to school violence is to put an officer at every campus. The letter also says resource officers improve school environments by preventing violence at school and bullying and connecting at-risk kids to services.
Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard's rough plan for how he would spend a half-cent sales tax targeted at hiring law enforcement officers for …
"I believe it’s going to pass," Wentzel said in an interview Friday. "I know when people start looking in their hearts and they start looking at the needs of safety in our schools — what is the cost of something like that? People are going to see it’s for the children."
Lori Steele, a spokeswoman for the sheriff, said Ard was unavailable for an interview for this story.
But Larry O'Neill, who helped lead the failed push to pass a drainage tax in southeastern Livingston Parish last year, said he is not persuaded by the messaging.
In an interview, O'Neill said does not see placing an officer at every school as a primary need, when the parish has so many other issues, including drainage.
"Of course none of us want any of our children hurt, in my case its grandchildren. But we really haven't had that issue here," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said he is also concerned Ard is asking for more money than he needs and that the tax would last in perpetuity. He said he'd be more likely to vote in favor of a quarter-cent tax.
"We're talking about $9 million. You don't need about half that to put resource officers in there," O'Neill said. "His numbers don't add up to me."
The gunfire was 1,400 miles away, but the impact hit hard for Julian Whittington, sheriff of Bossier Parish.
If the measure passes, the tax could bring in a surplus for the Sheriff's department of anywhere from $2.5 million — a figure the Sheriff’s Office readily acknowledges is likely — to more than $3.9 million if revenue comes in higher than projected and costs turn out to be lower.
Ard has said surplus funds would be used to purchase more equipment and hire additional deputies for the growing parish.
His chief finance officer, Jamie Felder, has defended the amount by saying it is the sum needed to guarantee the program can be implemented immediately and secured for the future.
Meanwhile, parish-wide elected officials have remained mostly mum on the topic. The Advocate reached out to them this week for their position on the measure.
Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks declined to say whether he is for or against the tax proposal. He said he did not think residents wanted to hear from him about how to vote.
“Should the tax pass, I have full confidence in Sheriff Jason Ard," Ricks said. "He will spend this money wisely to protect our schools."
Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said he is supporting the tax, although he has not gone out to campaign for it.
"I know its a large amount of money, but I would support it in that it would hopefully provide for safety in the schools," Perrilloux said.
Parish Clerk of Court Tom Sullivan gave a wholehearted endorsement of the proposal. Sullivan said he fears there could be a violent incident here, as there has been in other areas. He also said law enforcement officers in schools can be good mentors for kids and can teach them early that police are not the enemy.
"I understand that anti-tax movement, but at the end of the day, when I cast my ballot, and I already have, I could not live with myself if I had the opportunity to do something to at least to try to curb violence in the school of a child or grandchild," Sullivan said.
Livingston Parish Assessor Jeff Taylor did not respond to requests for comment.