On the Ballot

Concerned about ‘defunding the DA’s office,’ St. Tammany district attorney pushing new tax

By Sara Pagones

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

April 15, 2022

If they blink, St. Tammany voters might miss the vote for a new sales tax to fund criminal prosecutions. It’s the lone parishwide proposition on the April 30 ballot, and north shore District Attorney Warren Montgomery isn’t taking the traditional route of sending mailers or putting signs up across the parish.

But the 22nd Judicial District Attorney has been on the campaign trail for weeks, making the case in person for the 10-year tax, 1/7th of a cent that will generate $7.9 million annually for criminal prosecutions.

The 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office includes St. Tammany and Washington parishes, but this tax would only be levied and used in St. Tammany.

‘Defunding the DA’
Early voting begins Saturday, and in the final stretch of the campaign, Montgomery says he also plans to use targeted social media to deliver his message: that public safety is at risk because of severe budget cuts that will mean less timely prosecutions and more criminals on the street.

Seizing on a political buzzword, Montgomery says the DA is being defunded, a theme he sounded at April’s Parish Council meeting.

“If that budget cut, if that defunding of the DA’s office stands, it would have serious, serious repercussions for the criminal justice system, St. Tammany Parish, my office and ultimately to the quality of life for all of us in St. Tammany Parish,” he told the council “The number one indicator of quality of life is our security and our safety.”

If the tax fails, Montgomery says, he will have no choice but to sue the St. Tammany Parish government, which is required by the state to adequately fund his office.

The St. Tammany Parish Council allocated $3.1 million to the DA’s criminal side in the 2022 budget, less than half of the $6.4 million the office requested. It’s a cut that’s been looming since 2018, when a pair of sales taxes that had funded the courthouse, including agencies like the District Attorney and the parish jail, expired after voters refused to renew them.

The parish made three more failed attempts to get voters to approve a tax for criminal justice costs. Shortly after the last attempt, in November, Montgomery said his office would seek its own tax.

Support for tax
No organized opposition has emerged, and Montgomery he received some support. The Bureau of Governmental Research, a private, non-profit research organization, released a report earlier this month supporting the measure.

It’s also been endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government and the West St. Tammany Business Alliance.

The BGR had given a favorable report to the parish’s attempt last year to get a 4/10ths-cent sales tax approved. Voters shot that down, with 65% saying no.

This new proposal, BGR says, will provide a stable, recurring source of revenue for criminal prosecutions, and enough money to hire and retain sufficient staff to maintain its caseload.

Most of the revenue, $7 million, will go to staffing while the remaining money will be used to pay for office and technology costs, the BGR report says.

Montgomery said that he has lost experienced prosecutors because of the financial crunch, and staffing has been reduced from 137 in 2019 to 123.

The BGR also said that the tax would lift some of the burden from St. Tammany’s general fund, which makes up only 10% of the parish budget but is the only source for the state-mandated costs such as the DA, 22nd Judicial District Court and jail. Freeing up that revenue could help restore some of the budget cuts to the jail and the court, the report said.

Providing oversight
BGR said it had some concerns about public oversight of the tax, but Montgomery had addressed that issue by agreeing to publish quarterly revenue and expenditure statements and provide parish government with an annual budget that would be reviewed at a public meeting.

He also committed to an annual review to determine whether the tax rate should be reduced to avoid excessive surpluses.

Montgomery said that he made those commitments after talking to various interest groups, including elected officials. “We solicited ideas from everyone,” he said.

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