About a dozen years after Abita Springs abolished its scandal-ridden police department in favor of beefed-up services from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, new Mayor Dan Curtis has notified the agency that he's ending the contract.
But Curtis said his hope is simply to negotiate more favorable terms with the Sheriff's Office, not to create a new police department.
The town's Board of Aldermen voted in late 2006 to abolish the department, and Louis Fitzmorris, who was then mayor, asked the Sheriff's Office to submit a proposal. According to news accounts at the time, Fitzmorris said that the town couldn't provide its own police service at the same level that the Sheriff's Office could. The Sheriff's Office took over in 2007.
The change came a few years after the small department was embroiled in a commission-selling scandal that landed its police chief and two others on the force in jail.
Greg Lemons, who succeeded Fitzmorris as mayor, kept the contract in place. But Curtis, who took office Jan. 1, said he had promised while campaigning to cut the fat if he was elected, and that means evaluating everything, including all of the town's contracts.
The contract with the Sheriff's Office is one of the largest costs Abita Springs has, Curtis said. Lemons persuaded Sheriff Randy Smith to freeze the amount for the last two years, Curtis said, but now the contract calls for a 3 percent increase effective July 1 that will bring the annual cost to about $300,000.
That's in addition to what Abita Springs already pays for the Sheriff's Office through ad valorem taxes. In Abita Springs, that millage generates about $250,000, Curtis said.
Either party can terminate the contract, but they are required to give six months' notice, which Curtis did last month. Capt. Scott Lee, a spokesman for Smith, confirmed that the Sheriff's Office received the notification.
Abita Springs won't be left without service from the Sheriff's Office even if the contract lapses, Lee said, pointing out that the Sheriff's Office provides police services parishwide. But it would be less extensive than the coverage that's provided now.
Lee said it's not unusual for a new administration to reconsider contracts.
The Sheriff's Office has what amounts to a substation in the town, Curtis said, and the town provides office space, furniture, a computer and a bathroom.
The contract is supposed to provide four deputies, although Curtis said that one has been on extended medical leave. And while the town is supposed to have round-the-clock coverage under the contract, the deputies can be dispatched at any time to other pressing calls.
"I kind of wish we would've kept our police, but it's worked out fairly well for us," he said, adding that his goal is not to revive a local police department, which would be expensive in terms of personnel and equipment.
"I would love to work something out with the sheriff," he said. "We made the move. We're waiting for him to come back."