By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany news bureau
COVINGTON – St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister has acknowledged that next year’s critical sales tax renewal vote in March, 2018 was a determining factor in announcing this week that she is dropping the six controversial Economic Development District (EDD) taxes that went into effect in January.
On Monday, Brister acknowledged it was time to “listen to the people” and follow what is a clear anti-tax sentiment in St. Tammany that led to criticism early this year when the new tax was put into effect for the six new EDD regions.
Brister announced on Monday she is ending the three-quarter cent sales tax that went into effect at the start of this year.
The money was earmarked for plans she had to enhance what she calls the “gateways” to St. Tammany at different Interstate 12 exits.
Brister confirmed the fact that the sales tax renewal set for March, 2018 was a factor when deciding whether to press forward with the EDD taxes.
“If the people already feel overtaxed we have to recognize that and respond. When we consider the overall sentiment and our efforts to pass the sales tax renewal next year, coupled with the EDD taxes, the sales tax was certainly something we considered in deciding to drop the EDD taxes,” she added.
After the Parish Council passed the new EDD taxes last year at the request of Brister, criticism came from the St. Tammany West Chamber, some business owners, the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany (CCST) and individuals the parish president said she had talked to across the parish.
“I meet with constituents in many different ways—Rotary Club meetings, Chamber meetings, homeowner groups and many times simply at the grocery store,” she said. “There has been a lot of criticism about the overall high taxes in St. Tammany.
“I don’t think the problem with this one was so much the three-quarter cent tax in the shopping areas,” she added. “What I hear is that people are very unhappy with the overall total of all the taxes.”
St. Tammany ranks among the highest taxed parishes in the state although virtually every sales tax or millage was passed by residents during the past 20 years. However, recent elections have seen voters showing a lack of support for those taxes they previously passed.
Brister previously announced over a month ago that the parish will bring back, for a third time, the sales tax renewal to fund the jail and the Justice Center. Voters turned that tax down twice in the past year-and-a-half, but the parish president was willing to take more heat when she announced the vote again since she sees it as a critical piece of funding for the tight parish budget.
“We are trying to maintain this wonderful quality of life we have here,” she said. “The state cut over $20 million from our parish this past year—that is a lot of money to replace. So we really need the jail and Justice Center tax.”
Already taking heat for the EDD taxes, Brister said it was the right decision to drop those at this time, knowing the parish must work hard to pass the sales tax renewals in March of 2018.
Since being elected for her first term six years ago Brister has consistently pushed for programs, and taxes in some cases, that will keep St. Tammany’s elite quality of life at its current level. However, in recent years the growing anti-tax sentiment has at times made her the target of criticism.
After the EDD taxes were passed by the Parish Council, the St. Tammany West Chamber came out in opposition and recently sent Brister a letter asking for the taxes to be rescinded. They claimed that some businesses said they had to close because of the taxes, suggesting it cost them sales from customers who didn’t want to pay the extra money.
Brister directly disagreed with that statement, noting it is information like that which does not seem genuine.
“I think some of the criticism of our tax situation has come from a lot of misinformation that has been put out there,” she said. “I don’t think it’s all intentional, but the idea that some businesses had to close due to the taxes—no way that has happened. We monitor sales tax revenue and businesses and I don’t believe that has happened.”
She also said that critics claiming parish money is not used wisely was something she disagreed greatly with.
“All of our money is dedicated for specific items and we couldn’t be more careful and transparent with the public money,” she stated.
EDD taxes are not a new thing with four EDD districts in Slidell collecting extra tax money for years. The new money was projected to bring in approximately $4 million a year and was to be used for economic development projects.
The new districts were in central or western St. Tammany at I-12 and La. 21 at the busy Covington shopping area, as well as Highways 1077 and 59 near Mandeville, Hwy. 1088 to the west of Covington, and Hwy. 434 at the Lacombe exit.
The funds would have been used for infrastructure, cutting grass, picking up litter off the most travelled roads, landscaping, lighting and signage improvement. But another key component of the plan was to entice new companies to locate here, particularly those that can offer “high-paying jobs for our residents.”
“We wanted to do the things at those gateways so a prospective company would come to St. Tammany and see something different and attractive. Now the grass may not get cut as much, there could be litter and we won’t have the new signage we hoped to put up,” Brister said. “It’s disappointing since we had some plans that would have brought real value to our gateway areas.”
Issuing a statement on her decision, Brister said, “I have spent a great deal of time listening to taxpayers and business leaders across St. Tammany Parish and it is clear that they are not in favor of this Economic Development Tax.
“I have given notice to Sheriff Randy Smith to halt any collections on this tax, and will be asking that an ordinance be passed in the coming weeks to officially remove this new tax from being collected. While the revenue generated was helpful for economic development in the Parish, my primary job is to be responsible to the needs of residents of St. Tammany and it is clear that they do not want the tax,” she added.
Brister will turn her attention towards the jail and Justice Center renewal vote in March, 2018. The sales tax renewal was narrowly defeated in the second attempt earlier this year. The parish has reduced the sales tax from a quarter cent to a fifth-cent tax, and changed the taxing period from 20 years to 10 years.
Additionally, 10 percent of the money will now go the 22nd Judicial District’s specialty courts. The taxes, at a fifth-cent, will bring in approximately $9 million for each the jail operation and for the Justice Center.