For the third time in two years, St. Tammany Parish voters are being asked this month to approve a pair of sales tax renewals: one for the 1,100-bed parish jail and the other for the St. Tammany Justice Center, which houses 22nd Judicial District Court, the clerk of court's and assessor's offices, and others.
But this time around, the vote, on March 24, comes just days before the two taxes are set to expire on March 31.
The consequences of losing a projected $18 million a year for operation and maintenance of the two facilities will be felt immediately, Parish President Pat Brister told the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, and will become even more pronounced in 2019.
The parish is required by law to provide both a jail and a courthouse, and the administration froze hiring and eliminated raises for this year in anticipation of the possible revenue loss, Brister said.
Money from the parish's public health millage has been redirected from suicide prevention groups and other nonprofits to pay for medical care for jail inmates. The parish also had to dip into reserves to balance its budget for 2018. Sheriff Randy Smith also cut positions and closed a work-release facility.
The Bureau of Governmental Research, which analyzed the tax measures, noted that the parish also cut $1.9 million from Justice Center operating costs for 2018, mostly reductions in security and janitorial services, and appropriated $2.8 million from the operating fund balance and another $2.6 million from the debt service fund balance.
Brister said the impact of losing the tax revenue will not be limited to the criminal justice system but also will hit parish services, with a 45 percent cut in spending for the 22nd Judicial District Court judges, the district attorney and parish government operations paid for from the general fund, with ripple effects in other areas.
When parish government first sought renewal of the two quarter-cent sales taxes in 2016, Brister said she was looking ahead to St. Tammany's projected growth and future needs. But voters, who rejected those taxes by a 20-point margin, didn't want that approach, Brister said Tuesday. They preferred to be asked to vote separately on needs like a new building as they arise, she said.
So parish officials retooled the tax measures, coming back last year with a request for two one-fifth-cent taxes for 10 years rather than 20 years, and dedicating 10 percent of the money for the courthouse to specialty courts aimed at reducing recidivism, like a drug court and behavioral health court.
The reduced taxes lost by fewer than 200 votes each, and the parish has put the identical measures on this month's ballot.
Brister told chamber members that she takes responsibility for the first defeat. "The second time was not my fault; it was the voters' fault," she said, pointing to low turnout.
The parish president said she's made between 75 and 100 appearances before business and civic groups, homeowner associations and businesses to stress the important of the taxes, which amount to 40 cents for every $100 in spending, or about $80 a year for the average family, she said.
In her talk, Brister painted the taxes as essential for public safety, offering a rare glimpse into her personal life.
"We are 24 miles from New Orleans," she said. The crime and violence in that city are things St. Tammany residents do not want to see, she said, adding that her own son was attacked in New Orleans and still feels the effects today.
Smith, who also appeared at the breakfast, said the jail tax allowed the expansion of the jail from 300 beds to 1,100. The jail is the fourth largest in the state, he said, and last year more than 8,000 people were booked into it.
The expansion was needed, Smith said, adding that he does not want to go "back in time" to a period when jail overcrowding meant that prisoners had to be released because there were no beds for them, making the parish less safe. With parish arrests up, he said, the possibility of a renewed revolving door for criminals is real.
The appeal to public safety is generating some support. The St. Tammany Republican Parish Executive Committee has endorsed both measures, for example. The St. Tammany East Chamber of Commerce is also backing both taxes.
The board of the St. Tammany West Chamber will meet Friday to make a decision, Executive Director Lacey Toledano said, because members wanted to wait for the BGR's analysis.
The government watchdog group gave a split decision in a report that came out late last week, saying yes to the jail tax but no to the courthouse levy.
BGR agreed that the parish needs a dedicated funding source for the courthouse but said it hasn't clearly shown how much is needed for future operating and capital needs. It also pointed to a large fund balance.
But BGR said the jail tax will not produce excessive revenue and isn't enough to avoid recurring deficits in the jail's operation or to pay for future capital needs. If the jail tax were to fail, BGR warned, the loss of revenue could have negative consequences for the jail's safety and create a risk of federal intervention.
Speculation about how the taxes will fare this time around has been rampant in political and civic circles. Parish officials have bemoaned low voter turnout as part of the reason for the previous defeats, and both Brister and Smith urged business leaders at Tuesday's breakfast to get their families, co-workers and employees to vote.
Meg Casper Sunstrom, a spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said that office doesn't normally make turnout projections before early voting, which begins Saturday. She said turnout for spring elections is unpredictable but that the Slidell municipal elections on March 24 should boost turnout in that part of the parish.
If so, it could work in favor of the renewals, which fared better in Slidell last time around.
Ed Chervenak, a political science professor at UNO, said that taxes generally have a hard time in the parish. "St. Tammany Parish is historically conservative. ... There’s always this hostility to government, to any kind of tax ... so it’s difficult," he said.
But James Hartman, a political consultant and analyst, said he thinks the taxes have a better chance this time. "What voters have to remember is, it doesn't matter who the sheriff is or the parish president or anyone else. It's not a referendum or a vote of confidence," he said, calling the taxes necessary to keep the community safe and government efficient.
Brister took aim at some of the taxes' opponents, saying that it's irresponsible, for example, to suggest that the parish doesn't need a jail. "The ramifications to the criminal justice system cannot be overstated," she said.