Sheriff’s tax must be carefully scrutinized

It was during the time legislators in Baton Rouge were grappling over extension of a temporary one cent sales tax that Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter first shared with one of our reporters his plan to seek a one-half-cent sales tax to fund advanced coverage of schools by resource officers, keep certain public-benefit programs like inmate painting of schools and upkeep of public places, ultimately place more sworn officers on the streets, and likely allow some pay raises that have long been deferred.

It is not our custom to endorse candidates, nor to endorse positions on issues such as Sheriff Larpenter’s proposed tax.

But we do endorse careful consideration of this proposal by voters before they say yes to the tax.

In one sense, it is difficult to imagine a majority of Terrebonne Parish voters turning thumbs-down on a proposal that could make the work of police officers easier in some ways. Better equipment provision or tools for their work could result. Terrebonne Parish, like surrounding places in the Bayou Region, has a history of supporting law enforcement in many different ways. Such sentiments, most certainly, will find their way to the polling places. Others shall, as well, without any doubt. Political foes of Larpenter — and there are a few scattered about — are already expressing support of a “no” vote on the tax.

If Larpenter gets his wish from taxpayers, it is easy to see how improvements it is intended to pay for can be used as political plusses by the sheriff when he runs for re-election next year. It is also easy to see how putative opponents of the sheriff can use the shortcomings that may result if the tax measure is defeated against him.

Already, as an article in today’s newspaper points out, sharpened knives have found their way onto social media, attacking not only Larpenter but his proposal from behind the bushes, by way of an assumed name.

We thus urge voters to beware dogmatic appeals on either side of the tax question, and instead carefully research this proposal to draw a clear and well-informed conclusion on whether they wish to support it. New taxes cannot be justified by mere personality cult, and while we recognize and respect Sheriff Larpenter’s popularity with voters, we cannot abide by that being the decisive factor in such a matter as a half-cent sales tax.

Currently we are seeking to better understand any agency proposing a tax increase that would fatten their budget by about 40 percent, even in cases where there have been losses accounting for such a boost.

We are certain that voters have a lot of questions too. For this reason, we recommend that all people in Terrebonne Parish make it a point to attend meetings where questions can be asked directly of the sheriff.

We have always never known Sheriff Larpenter to be at a loss when it comes to communicating with the public. Toward that end we encourage voters individually or in groups to address their questions about the tax in any way that is convenient for them.

One of the more dismaying aspects of our tax proposal coverage has been the difficulty to get people — public officials as well as private citizens — who oppose the tax to responsibly and publicly present their view and the reasons for them.

An answer we repeatedly have encountered is that people do not wish to “get on the wrong side” of the sheriff, or to offend him, or to anger him.

We have no knowledge of any direct or indirect threats made to tax opponents by the sheriff. We find it unfortunate that people who have valid opinions to share that could assist their fellow citizens in making an important decision choose to silence themselves, and that they choose not to attach their names to sometimes eloquent and sensible statements of opposition.

It is not the first time we have encountered such self-censorship, and certainly will not be the last.

Members of a free society have a responsibility to express their opinions openly. It is only through robust debate that reliable truths can emerge. We therefore urge our fellow residents to speak their minds, to ask their questions and to not be fearful of their true opinions being known.

We are certain that Sheriff Larpenter would agree.