By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – Voters in St. Tammany Parish are sending a loud and clear message to parish officials in light of the second defeat at the polls for sales tax renewals that fund maintenance and operation of the Justice Center and parish jail.
“Tighten your financial belts.”
Not only are voters vehemently opposed to new taxes, but renewals of existing taxes—and even reductions—are not being supported with voters showing signs of a St. Tammany revolt. Not only have key parish leaders been replaced at the polls in recent years, but sales tax and millage renewals have been getting voted down at a steady pace.
The sales tax renewals that voters decided on this past Saturday, both reduced by 20 percent and taken from 20 years to 10 years, were narrowly defeated at the polls.
The vote for the fifth-cent Justice Center sales tax renewal lost in a vote count of 8,218 to 8,062.
The vote for the fifth-cent sales tax to fund the parish jail went down in a vote total of 8,188 to 8,069.
It was the second defeat in a year for the sales tax renewals. Last April, 2016 both renewals were overwhelmingly defeated with over 60 percent of the voters saying they didn’t want to pay for the taxes originally approved in 1998 to construct and maintain the Justice Center and parish jail.
This time parish officials aggressively got out to speak at every meeting and public gathering they could. The result was that nearly 2,000 more people got out to vote on Saturday and the educational campaign on the two issues did get more votes in favor of the renewals. However, it was still not enough support to swing the vote in favor of continuing the taxes.
In the first vote for the jail, 14,453 voters turned out to cast their ballot, with 8,734 voting against it for a strong 60 percent opposition mark. In Saturday’s vote there were 16,257 voters, but there were still 8,188 against the tax.
For the Justice Center, the first vote in 2016 saw 14,424 turn out to vote with 8,940, or 62 percent, against it. This time there were 16,280 voters with 8,188 still opposing the renewal.
Public sentiment also showed on six other tax issues, with three of the six going down in failure.
Two recreation districts, and one lighting district in the parish, were voted down as the public was asked to continue funding those issues.
Public comments on Facebook critical of parish government were easy to find and it was clear that parish officials hurt themselves in January when they approved five Economic Development District (EDD) sales taxes.
EDD taxes can be voted by the Parish Council without the approval of the public and the council supported five of them for particular shopping areas around St. Tammany, meaning shoppers in those areas are paying higher sales taxes.
Facebook posts consistently mentioned the disgust by voters that the Parish Council approved taxes without the backing of the public, making it clear that was another reason the public decided to say “no” when asked to renew the Justice Center and parish jail taxes.
Parish President Pat Brister had a brief comment after the election, noting that the decisions on how to address the loss of $9 million a year in revenue for each facility is one that will need much discussion and won’t be made quickly.
“It is unfortunate that some of the residents of St. Tammany chose not to support these two crucial sales tax renewals that are critical in supporting essential services to our parish, even after they were reduced by 20%. We will have to look at our general fund to determine what services our citizens currently utilize that will have to be cut, and if employee lay-offs will be required,” said Brister.
Sheriff Randy Smith, in a message on Facebook, said, “The voters have spoken. I will respect their decision. We will move forward and make the necessary changes in order to operate within our new budget.”
Some residents commented that the fact the two facilities would be paid off in 2018 was another reason the parish should be able to operate without the funding.
Brister, Smith and other public officials held a press conference in January, 2017 to tout the fact they were reducing the sales taxes from a quarter-cent to a fifth-cent, and also reducing the renewal from 20 years to 10 years. The parish president said that after the taxes went down in a big way a year ago she heard many residents saying the 20-year original tax term was too long.
Brister has said in the past months of campaigning for the tax renewal that if the Justice Center tax failed it would likely mean the Towers Building in Slidell would be closed, forcing all parish government offices to run exclusively from the already busy Justice Center in Covington. No comment on whether that will happen now has yet come from Brister.
Smith previously said that the parish jail would probably have to lay off half of the 200-man employee force there if the tax failed. Spokesman Capt. Daniel Seuzeneau said it is still too early to make any definitive statements on that matter in light of the tax renewal failing.