By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany news bureau
SLIDELL – St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister could not have been surprised last week by the flood of negative reaction to the news that parish government will try for a third time to pass two sales tax renewals to fund the parish jail and Justice Center.
The measure was already defeated twice in the past 18 months by St. Tammany residents, who are voting “no” on tax or property renewals with increasing regularity. Many critics on Social Media questioned spending priorities by the parish with the monies they already have, as well as criticism of salaries for some upper level employees.
The sales tax renewals were both for a quarter-cent in the April, 2016 vote, but were soundly defeated with approximately 60 percent of the electorate saying “no.” Parish officials brought them back for a second time in April, 2017 and mounted a more aggressive public campaign for passage, but voters narrowly defeated the measures this time with under 200 votes keeping them from being approved.
Now, after months of consideration and public commentary from Brister about seeking cost cutting measures, the tax will be brought back in March, 2018 for a third go around before the voters.
Brister contends the controversial decision to seek the tax for a third time centers on her efforts to maintain the quality of life in St. Tammany Parish.
“The decision to renew the tax is a prudent one based on the facts before us. 20 years ago, the voters of St. Tammany voted yes to these taxes to build, maintain and operate the Justice Center and to expand, maintain and operate the jail. We must continue to maintain them and operate them or we will be faced with deferred maintenance issues which, in the long run, cost more. Additionally, the taxpayers of St. Tammany are mandated by the State Legislature to pay for these two facilities, so we cannot, by law, cut them from the budget. So we are asking voters to consider these sales tax renewals for a third time, because not renewing them will have a serious impact on our way of life. It’s just that important,” she stated.
Not surprisingly, Social Media brought an onslaught of mostly negative reaction with residents asking how many times the parish would seemingly ignore the will of the people. Leadership with the two parish Chamber of Commerce groups held off joining those critics, with the Slidell Chamber taking a position in favor of passage, and the West Chamber withholding a position yet.
“This continued game of putting defeated taxes back on the ballot every few months needs to stop,” Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany (CCST) President Rick Franzo said. “What don’t they understand about the word, ‘No?’”
“St. Tammany has had enough with skyrocketing taxes and we are exhausted from being misled by parish leaders on how our money is being spent. We already see some of the highest tax rates in the state and even the nation. I wholeheartedly oppose this attempt at returning to the taxpayer trough for more money,” Eric McVicker said in a Social Media post.
When the tax was brought back earlier this year it was in a different and reduced version. The quarter-cent was reduced to a fifth-cent, and the tax was changed from 20 years to 10 years. However, voters still defeated the proposal, leading to Sheriff Randy Smith and parish officials looking for ways to cut costs.
Smith reduced his jail workforce substantially, while Brister has made a handful of budgetary moves that include a hiring freeze, cancelling the Holiday of Lights show, and reducing hours of operation at parish sites such as the fishing pier and Camp Salmen. Smith declined to comment this week about the decision by parish officials to seek the taxes again.
However, much of the public criticism continues to question salaries of upper ranking parish officials.
“How about an ordinance to cut leadership salaries, perks and take home vehicles?” another Facebook post said from Mark Michaud. “You are asking us to sacrifice, but it seems it is easier to ask employees and taxpayers to foot your perks and high pay.
“You are breaking the backs of us common folks as you expect us to give you the approval to have the best of the best in pay, perks and jobs,” he added.
“Don’t the politicians have their pockets lined enough already,” Ted Dennis added. “It’s a damn shame they keep trying to force this tax down our throats. What do they think? The public will change their minds and decide they want another useless tax? It has failed to pass twice, so let it be gone—St. Tammany voters don’t want this tax.”
In a press release announcing the third attempt at the sales tax renewal, Brister issued a warning to parish residents about the strong law enforcement the North Shore enjoys.
“Without this revenue, our Criminal Justice System will be unrecognizable and very different from the efficient and extremely effective system we have in place today,” she said.
Brister has continued to press the point of “quality of life” in St. Tammany Parish, one that is so attractive to outsiders that the parish continues to see steady population growth. However, that quality of life has come at a price with the parish ranking among the top in the state in terms of taxes and millages.
She said that due to the state mandate to fund the Justice Center and the parish jail, those monies will have to come from the general fund of the parish by next year when the sales tax revenue runs out.
“We have taken an even harder look at our operating budget since April, and we have implemented cost-saving measures, however, this is not sustainable for the long-term,” said Brister.
East St. Tammany Chamber Chairman of the Board Al Hamauei said their group will support the tax passage for the third time.
“Any tax that will strengthen our way of life and keep us safe should always be strongly considered and supported when deemed necessary,” he said. “We must be able to maintain our justice and prison systems– that all being said, it is our opinion that we MUST support the needed taxes to keep our community the safe and secure place we all want for our families.”
St. Tammany West Chamber President Lacey Toledano said their organization is taking a “wait and see” attitude towards the taxes.
“Considering the feedback we’ve received regarding the economic development district (EDD) sales tax and our request for the council to rescind it, we will take a very thorough look at the parish administration’s budget before reconsidering supporting the two renewals again,” Toledano commented. “We have simple questions regarding general parish budget items—how the income/expenses have changed over recent years, how are the items being cut are decided upon? We all have the parish’s best interests and future at heart. We want and hope to be in this together vs. opposed to each other.”
The Northshore Business Council declined to comment on the decision to bring the taxes up for a vote again.