St. Tammany Parish voters may have soundly rejected two proposed quarter-cent sales tax renewals for operating the parish jail and courthouse, but that doesn’t mean the taxes are going away.
For one thing, neither expires until 2018. In addition, two key officials — Parish President Pat Brister and Sheriff-elect Randy Smith — said they expect to put the renewals back on the ballot before the taxes expire.
Obviously, Smith said, a different approach will be needed next time after the two taxes garnered only about 40 percent of the vote Saturday. As an example, he pointed to the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center, whose property tax renewal was approved by voters Saturday, five months after voters in the same five parishes overwhelmingly defeated it.
“I am thinking we are looking at a different approach to get it on the ballot again,” Smith said.
For Smith, who takes office July 1, the tax is crucial to operating the 1,100-bed parish jail, about half of which is filled with state and federal inmates.
“It could be devastating,” Smith said of the possibility the tax would lapse.
Smith and Brister campaigned heavily for the two renewals, visiting civic and homeowner groups across the parish and sending out mailers urging voters to support the taxes.
Smith — who won election as sheriff just five months ago — said he wasn’t sure why the jail tax failed. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened,” he said.
Brister declined a request for an interview. But in a written statement, she blamed herself for not doing a good enough job of “educating” voters about the taxes.
“There is a return on investment of these renewals. I need to do a better job of explaining that to our citizens,” she said.
The taxes were also likely a victim of bad timing. The state’s budget crunch recently led to an increase in the state sales tax. Also, the jail has been the subject of several stories in The New Orleans Advocate and on WWL-TV, including ones suggesting that high-profile inmates such as Darren Sharper seemed to get preferential treatment.
The taxes also were opposed by the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, whose members blitzed social media with calls for people to vote against the renewals. Finally, as is normal at off-major elections, turnout was extremely low — less than 9 percent in St. Tammany.
Smith said one focus of a renewed campaign would be to recruit more law enforcement and local political leaders to help get the word out about the taxes’ importance.
Officials at the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center were faced with a similar predicament five months ago after voters in all five parishes voted against renewing that tax. Officials warned that without the 3-mill, 10-year tax, the center would close, and they hired a public relations firm and lobbied hard at the various parish councils and chambers of commerce.
Such an effort is likely coming in St. Tammany Parish as well.
Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said he could see a scenario in which he would support the taxes. But he said he would support the jail tax only if Smith could clearly present a case for why it is necessary.
As for the courthouse tax, Franzo said officials need to show why the tax used to pay for the building’s construction and expansion is still needed to operate it.
“If they can present a real case with facts to the citizens, we again would consider supporting it in the future,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.