Nearly 1,200 people logged early votes on Saturday’s ballot proposal asking to partially rededicate property-tax revenue away from Lafourche libraries toward funding construction of a new detention center.
Tammy Wendelschaefer, deputy registrar of the Lafourche Registrar of Voters, called the early turnout “very high.”
“I think it’s the controversy of the issue,” Wendelschaefer said.
Advocates of the rededication say the revenue stream is the one way to finance a new $25 million jail without raising taxes on parish citizens. They point to the library’s budget, continually growing, as evidence that the system is collecting more money than it needs.
Library officials contend that increased spending, done at deficit levels by drawing from a fund balance, is necessary to make up for self-inflicted spending cuts during a massive capital expansion project. They also note that seven years ago, the system voluntarily reduced its tax rates by 2 mills, double the amount posed on this weekend’s ballot.
Debate over the issue has been pointed and, at times, personal. Voters will determine the outcome Saturday. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
With one response, voters will decide on two points:
Whether to extend collection of 3.8 mills solely dedicated to constructing, improving, maintaining or operating the library branches through 2034. The tax is currently set to expire in 2016.
Whether to rededicate 1 of the 3.8 mills to “the acquisition, construction, operation and maintenance” of a new detention center, leaving the other 2.8 mills to the library system.
A yes vote agrees to the proposition in full. A no vote rejects the proposition and maintains the millage’s current sunset date, though it could be presented to voters again down the line.
If rededicated, revenue derived from the 1 mill would first be packaged with $600,000 per year in parish funds as leverage for the selling of bonds to fund construction of a new jail, Parish President Charlotte Randolph said.
In addition to the 3.8 mills under consideration, the library system collects 2.5 mills, meaning the system’s total would be decreased from 6.3 to 5.3 if the proposition were to pass. Of that total, 1.54 mills are attached to a tax call expiring in 2016, and a separate 0.96-mill call is scheduled to expire in 2018.
The parish council placed the proposition on the ballot via a 5-3-1 vote. Councilmen John Arnold, Jerry Lafont and Daniel Lorraine opposed it. Councilman Jerry Jones was absent.
Owners of a $150,000, homestead-exempt property pay $47.25 toward the parish’s library system under the current structure. The 1 mill under consideration represents $7.50 on that tax bill.
A HIGH-STAKES ELECTION
A parishwide mill was valued at $800,000 in revenue for 2012, according to Parish Assessor Michael Martin. The 2013 value will not be finalized until at least Nov. 15, Martin said, but he conservatively estimated a 3-percent increase.
Entities that receive revenue derived from millages typically get about 95 percent of the value, as the sheriff’s office, which collects taxes, takes money off the top from each property-tax stream to fund retirement systems, its own collection efforts and other obligations, Martin said.
In that regard, 1 parishwide mill was worth about $760,000 to the library system in 2012. The library budgeted its 2014 revenue – which are actually 2013 receipts – at $741,000 per mill.
Martin said it would be difficult to estimate the total revenue 1 mill would command over the course of 30 years, because the rate of property-value increases is contingent upon several variables.
But the parish council’s internal auditor, Tommy Lasseigne, a doctor of finance, provided several estimates based on historical data and varying future scenarios.
The value of 1 parishwide mill has risen by 8 percent each year for the past decade, Lasseigne told the parish council two months ago. If that growth rate remains steady, 1 mill would raise $98.6 million over 30 years, the auditor figured. Should the growth clock in at 3 percent per year, the mill would raise $41.4 million.
Lasseigne’s figures underscore how much money the library system stands to lose if the proposition passes.
But proponents of the rededication point to the anticipated inflation as a natural way of easing the blow to the system – over time the money would be restored.
STATE OF THE LIBRARY SYSTEM
Regardless of the election results, the Lafourche Parish Library System will spend more money than it collects in 2014.
The system opened seven new branches without borrowing money, instead solely relying on its cumulative 6.3 parish-wide property-tax millage. The last branch, in Thibodaux, opened last year.
During that building period, which officials deem Phase I, the system built up a fund balance, done so for the purpose of establishing a cushion during construction, Library System Director Laura Sanders said.
The balance totaled $8.2 million at the end of 2012. In spending more money than it collected in 2013, the system drew $700,000 from that “reserve” fund.
The system’s 2014 budget, already approved by its board of control at a 16-percent spending increase from 2013, draws an additional $1.6 million from the balance.
Among the heightened spending, according to the budget, are a $250,000 increase (11 percent) in salaries, a $150,000 increase (300 percent) in database expenses and a $120,000 increase (20 percent) in book expenses.
So the projected end-year 2014 fund balance – after near-term, planned spending is right at $6 million. Of that, $2 million has been evenly split into an emergency fund and into a fund for future technology. The remaining $4 million is assigned to future operations budgets.
“We are trying to use our reserves prudently, providing the services and the technology and the materials the patrons want,” Sanders said. “We also believe it’s important to have a savings account, if you will, to have contingency funds just like you and I have at home.”
Sanders’ broader argument is that, if the library system is to grow, it will have to compensate for previously trimmed spending by drawing from the cushion the system established via the choice to fall below some state standards while construction was ongoing.
More capital improvements, such as expanding and enhancing some branches, fixing the Thibodaux branch’s already-damaged roof and replacing air-conditioning units in that same branch, are already necessary, she said.
“One of the misconceptions out there, I think, is that we have nine new, modern libraries that are pristine and need nothing, and that is just not the truth,” Sanders said.
Sanders framed the proposal as an assault on the library system, because enforcing a reduction in its revenue would limit its institutional offerings to residents. She also noted it wouldn’t be possible if not for the savings the library generated while undergoing the construction phase. In essence, she reasoned, the system’s growth is being restricted because of solid financial planning.
Examples of standards that the system is currently not meeting are: a minimum of 10 librarians with master degrees (it has 8.5, a mixture of full- and part-time employees); and at least 20 percent of the system’s budget should be spent on materials (it is at 18 percent). This also explains the increased spending in these areas from 2013 to 2014.
Digital advancements are changing the nature of libraries and are requiring a greater financial commitment to serve the public’s progressing demands, Sanders stressed.
“All of these technology advances, which we’re moving into, it’s wonderful because that’s what a lot of our population is going to, but it is expensive. When you’re looking at e-books, you don’t just buy the book: you have to buy the platform every year that provides the book to the people.”
Given that the system has no plans to build more branches, Randolph and Council Chairman Lindel Toups, the most outspoken proponents of the revenue shift, said library officials are collecting more money than they need.
“The library budget has grown tremendously over the last couple of years,” Randolph said. “It’s an area that we don’t think is absolutely necessary. … Frankly, I’ve never believed that people who pay taxes to government want government to stock it away.”
Randolph contends that the library system meets or exceeds many state standards.
“This is not an easy decision,” she said. “It’s not a personal decision, but it’s a decision the council made, and we went forward with it, based on the recommendation of the legislative internal auditor (one year ago).”
Toups served as the chair of the “New Jail Committee,” established in 2011 to help secure funding for a new facility. He said the library’s revenue is a logical choice.
“They’ve got too much money,” Toups said. “We’re giving the public the chance to raise the jail money without raising taxes. Any blind man can see that.”
Aside from his point that the system collects too much money, Toups does not philosophically agree with the library’s evolving role in the community.
“They’re teaching Mexicans how to speak English,” the council chairman said in reference to Biblioteca Hispana, a Hispanic-language segment of the Golden Meadow library branch. “Let that son of a bitch go back to Mexico. There’s just so many things they’re doing that I don’t agree with. … Them junkies and hippies and food stamps (recipients) and all, they use the library to look at drugs and food stamps (on the Internet). I see them do it.”
Randolph has been complimentary of the library’s offerings, but she said the rededication aligns with the primary role of government: to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens, rights that particularly extend to pre-trial inmates.
“We need a new building in order to ensure that the people who work in the jail as well as the people who are in pre-trial in this jail are protected as best as possible,” Randolph said.
To rebut the notion that the library system is hoarding money, Sanders pointed to the library board of control’s voluntary rollback of 2 mills in 2006, when the end of Phase I began coming into focus. “We were out of the collect-the-building-money phase,” Sanders said.
As to why she opposes a proposition that would extend nearly a third of the library system’s revenue stream for 30 years, Sanders said the system has no wiggle room regarding revenue and left no doubt the system will seek to renew each of its three ad-valorem streams prior to their sunset.
“It doesn’t help us,” Sanders said. “The people of Lafourche Parish have voted numerous times to fund libraries, and we feel that will occur again when our millage is up. What (the proposal) does is lock us into a reduced funding amount for 30 years.
“If we lose this millage, we cannot operate our libraries on $800,000 a year, and that’s what we would have left after we (cancel other revenue with the cost of) salaries. Somewhere we will make cuts; there’s just no other way around it.”
Suggested cuts would result in reduced hours at less-used satellite branches, less money for technological costs and fewer available materials offered free to people with a library card, Sanders said.
Should the library system run into financial hardship, Toups said, its leadership could approach the council for extra appropriations or, possibly, a rerouting of tax collections.
“If they run out of money, we’re going to bail them out,” he said.
STATE OF THE DETENTION CENTER
Amid the debate surrounding the new jail, few have expressed the opinion that it is not needed.
The Lafourche Parish Detention Center, located in Thibodaux, was built in 1968, expanded in 1977 and has been battling space issues since at least 1995. The facility is also plagued by infrastructural woes, and the cramped quarters pose a threat to guards, officials have said.
The jail can hold 244 prisoners. As of Monday, 335 inmates were on the detention center’s online roster. Overflow inmates are shipped to facilities out of parish through contracts the council has approved; this comes at a higher cost to the parish.
Sheriff Craig Webre said the jail population is “artificially low” due to the lack of space. Webre’s deputies “as a general rule” do not arrest suspected misdemeanor offenders, the sheriff said, as they instead issue a criminal summons. Overcrowding also suppresses bail amounts, which allows certain offenders to bond out more easily than otherwise possible. The detention center also truncates sentences due to “good time” bonuses, the sheriff added.
“We realize that half of the people could serve all of their time, or all of the people could serve half of their time,” Webre said. “We’re very, very liberal in the use of ‘good time.’”
Aside from the space issues, Webre said the current facility’s problems are two-fold: It’s broken, and its design is obsolete.
The building’s infrastructure – heating, air conditioning, electricity and plumbing – has been strained 24 hours a day, every day, since it was built. Some parts needed for maintenance are no longer available. “The useful life of a jail facility is about 30 years,” Webre said. “This building never sits idle.”
The layout incorporates a cellblock design, which groups inmates in close quarters and is seen as a way to reduce populations and needed square footage, but it does not allow for efficient oversight. The hallways and intake areas are also narrow, which could make an ordinary situation hazardous to guards, officials say.
Like the need for a new jail, there is little debate as to who’s accountable for rectifying the problem. Louisiana law holds parish governments responsible for establishing and maintaining a “good and sufficient jail.”
If the jail is left unfixed, it is in such a state a federal judge could order the parish to make the repairs, officials regularly say, which would require immediate funding from parish government – tying up money used for other services – rather than the planned spending officials are seeking to implement. Judges have issued such orders around the country, sometimes in response to civil-rights lawsuits.
SPECIFICS OF POTENTIAL JAIL LACKING
Government officials have neither agreed upon nor publicly stated any specifics as to the potential new jail’s size, design or programs, leaving the project’s ultimate cost undetermined.
A new facility would no doubt impact operating and maintenance costs, more than likely lessening the annual burdens, but officials can’t accurately say what the end result will be without a firm plan in place.
The parish has already met with bonding attorneys and are working on establishing and working within a $25 million budget for a new jail, Randolph said. Once the revenue is secured, the parish will design a jail according to that figure.
“What we’re doing is we’re taking the first step,” Randolph said. “We will design to the amount of money we have.”
Also unknown is what role – if any – the current facility would have in the future.
The existing detention center does have the structural capacity to be refurbished and expanded, according to an architectural report commissioned by the new jail committee.
On the other hand, Webre has maintained that the report provides insufficient evidence as whether the existing building can realistically be refurbished. The jail is noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so it would require retrofitting. As noted above, many of the required parts are no longer available.
Webre has said the parish should order in-depth studies on the cost analysis of such modernization and of whether the current facility is suitable in holding and monitoring inmates. That research has not been conducted to this point.
“If there is a residual value and a practical use to it, by all means, it should be considered,” Webre said.
Michael LeBlanc, whom the parish council hired as the project’s consultant this summer, has posited cost and size estimates for nearly a year. His figures, though not official, have been used in most jail discussions ahead of Saturday’s vote.
His latest recommendation was that the parish should build a 540-bed, $25-million jail. Capacity needs are based on LeBlanc’s own formula, to the chagrin of the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana, which has called for the parish to commission an expert to study Lafourche’s needs.
LeBlanc admits that his primary goal is landing the job’s lucrative design contract, and the state Board of Ethics opined in June that the architectural and consulting contracts are not mutually exclusive.
Webre said his office has held “very preliminary discussions” with LeBlanc.
“I guess those discussions are somewhat premature,” Webre said. “If you don’t have a source of revenue, then it doesn’t do him any good or me any good to talk hypothetically.”
ALTERNATIVE FUNDING SOURCES
Should the rededication proposal fail, it’s difficult to discern a way in which the parish could afford to move forward without raising tax levels, advocates say.
“We are acutely aware that residents and voters will not pay additional money to build a new (jail) facility,” Randolph said.
The only existing property taxes that can be redirected equitably are the ones levied throughout the parish. Combined, they equate to 68.07 mills, including the library’s tax rates.
Parish officials and the council declined to propose a rededication of Council on Aging – collector of 1.98 mills – funds despite Lasseigne’s assessment that the fund built for elderly services has room to cut. Officials have publicly maintained that the only feasible property-tax rededication is of library funds.
An idea that has been floated privately, according to three sources, is the possibility of the council raising the sales tax dedicated to the Solid Waste Fund and then asking voters to rededicate a portion of that stream to funding a new jail.
Voters approved the Solid Waste rate at a full cent, perpetually. Over time it built up a fund balance, so the parish council voted in 1996 to roll it back to seven-tenths of a cent. The public body retains the authority to raise it back to its original amount without voter approval, but voters would have to approve any rededication.
In a poll contracted through Michael LeBlanc, the parish’s jail consultant and an aspiring architect for the job, a question posed to Lafourche voters told interviewees that the parish “could increase the sales tax by one-tenth of a cent” for a new jail.
Even aside from the Solid Waste rate, a sales tax has been considered as a remedy to the jail woes, but parish officials have to this point shied away from new taxes.
Two years ago, during committee meetings focusing on constructing a new detention center, Toups vocally supported on multiple occasions the idea of letting voters decide on a new quarter-cent sales tax to support a jail project.
With an issue he has become synonymous with hanging in the balance, Toups’ publicly expressed opinion has changed.
“If this fails, I give up,” Toups said. “I’m going to wait until the federal judge shuts it down. I vote no new taxes.”