On the Ballot

Citing a ‘deepening fiscal crisis,’ BGR endorses proposed St. Tammany sales tax

By Marie Fazio

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

October 21, 2021

The Bureau of Governmental Research has endorsed the proposed sales tax that St. Tammany Parish government will put before voters next month, according to a report released by the agency on Thursday.

BGR, a New Orleans-based non-profit watchdog group, said in the report that it supports the nearly-half-cent tax because it would provide enough finding for the parish to pay for most state-mandated obligations, as well as “put an end to a deepening fiscal crisis in St. Tammany Parish Government that has resulted from a lack of undedicated revenue.”

The referendum is Nov. 13. The 4/10ths-cent tax would generate an estimated $22.2 million annually for seven years. The money would be used to fund state-mandated funding responsibilities of the parish, including the jail and courthouse, as well as the sheriff, district attorney, clerk of court, assessor and registrar of voters offices.

This will be the fourth time parish officials have attempted to pass a tax measure for those expenses. The previous sales taxes, two quarter-cent taxes initially approved in 1998, expired in 2018 after failed attempts in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

In the meantime, the parish has relied on its reserves to maintain those operations. But at the start of 2022 the parish will have emptied its operating reserves for both the jail and justice center, the BGR report said. If a parish fails to pay for state-mandated responsibilities, judges or officials could sue.

In 2018 the parish government pitched twin 1/5th-cent sales taxes to fund jail and courthouse operations for 10 years. BGR backed the proposed jail sales tax. But the agency turned thumbs-down on the courthouse tax, citing the surplus the existing tax had generated at the time.

This attempt is a single tax sales tax with a shorter term — seven years — and can be applied to any state-mandated responsibility of the parish, rather than just the jail and justice center.

“The proposition overcomes concerns BGR raised during past renewal attempts,” the BGR report said. “This time the parish has accompanied the tax request with a clear spending plan and accountability measures . . .”

Going to voters again was the recommendation of a revenue review panel St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper put together in 2020. In June, the St. Tammany Parish Council agreed to put the measure on the ballot.

“The approval of this proposition will enable the collection of funds to assist the Sheriff, District Attorney, and Judges to continue to maintain the safe and serene quality of life that we all know and love about our parish,” Cooper said in a statement after the report was released. “I hope that our citizens take the time to review BGR’s report.”

Since the taxes expired, the parish has reduced operating costs at the jail and St. Tammany Justice Center by more than $11 million, according to the report. If approved, sales tax rates throughout the parish would range from 9.1% to 9.6%, the report said, similar to those in Jefferson Parish, at 9.2%, and Orleans Parish, at 9.45%.

The proposed increase would equate to 40 cents per $100 of taxable purchases, according to the report.

Early voting on the proposed tax and several other items on the Nov. 13 ballot will be Oct. 30 – Nov. 6 (excluding Sunday, Oct. 31) from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the St. Tammany Justice Center Parking Garage in Covington, the Towers Building in Slidell or the St. Tammany Administrative Complex on Koop Drive in Mandeville.

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