ST. TAMMANY -- Five months ago, less than 10 percent of St. Tammany voters squeaked out a "No" message to leaders regarding future funding to operate and maintain the Parish Jail and Justice Center, both in Covington.
It was the second time the request was made, but that time, both sales tax renewal proposals were shortened to last only ten years and the amounts lessened from 1/4 cent to 1/5 cent.
Since then, spending has been re-prioritized. The parish says it "has implemented a standstill operating budget; placed many large initiatives on hold; instituted a hiring freeze, including not filling positions that become vacant (currently at 71); consolidated offices; reduced operating hours at the St. Tammany Parish Fishing Pier; Camp Salmen Nature Park; cancelled the annual Holiday of Lights; and other cost-cutting measures will be forthcoming."
The Sheriff's Office closed the work release program, outsourced its inmate medical care and laid off 35 employees. Sheriff Randy Smith also rolled forward the Law Enforcement District millage, which supports his office's operations, to its maximum allowed rate.
Now, the parish wants voters to reconsider renewing the sales taxes behind those services once more because they say they're simply out of other options.
"Our citizens are very used to services in this parish, deserve them because they've paid for them," said Parish President Pat Brister, "So there's certain things that you can cut, there's certain things you can't. These are mandated by state statute. We have to pay for these."
But the reaction to the announcement has been mixed.
Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, which was against both of the past two renewal proposals, says it is open to changing its mind on the jail tax proposal, but feels not enough significant cuts have been made on the parish government side of things and not enough financial information has been made available for independent research.
"How many times can you reinvent the wheel, put a different package on it and bring it to the public," asked CCST President Rick Franzo, "The public is tired of the taxes going on in St. Tammany Parish. They said no twice and I believe they're going to say no three times."
But those who supported the renewals both times say the anti-tax sentiment circulating through the parish is being inappropriately applied to this situation.
"If the parish has to find other ways to fund this, there's just not enough money in the parish budget to do it and that means that services are going to be cut, the D.A., the courts, the judges, it just doesn't make sense," said Jean Champagne.
While the Sheriff's Office did not offer a comment on this story by news time, parish leaders said what they're focusing on this time, that they didn't do well enough last time, is explaining the bare bones of what the taxes pay for and the true consequences if they aren't renewed.
Despite controversy currently brewing over the parish's economic development district sales taxes, business and political groups that supported the jail and Justice Center tax renewal efforts before say knowing and sharing the fundamental details of the proposals are going to be their priority too.
"We want to take a good strong look at the parish budget," said St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lacey Toledano, "We understand it's difficult to understand the big picture, but we're going to try to do that before we say yes or no that we support the renewals. We really want to help voters understand what they're voting for."
And regardless of opinion, everyone wants to see more voters making their voices heard at the polls.
Thursday night, the Parish Council scheduled a public hearing in November where it will officially consider placing this third renewal attempt on the March ballot.
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