Sheriff: Tax is necessity

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 9, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / August 9, 2000

LAPLACE – St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Wayne L. Jones wants peoplein the parish to know the proposed sales tax referendum on the Oct. 7 ballotis a real necessity to keep the parish streets safe.

The sheriff is asking St. John voters to accept a quarter-cent sales taxincrease that would go primarily to salaries for police and correction officers.

Since Jones first took office in 1996 the parish has seen a reduction in crime. Part of the reason for that, Jones believes, is he has put moreofficers on the street.

Thanks to a federal program called the Universal Hiring Grant, Jones was able to hire 14 officers to patrol the streets of the parish. The federalgovernment paid for 75 percent of these officers’ salaries.

However, starting in December, funding for those officers will start to run out. Jones will have to pick up the salaries for the first eight officersstarting on Dec. 1 and the remaining six officers beginning on June 1, 2001. Even though crime has gone down in the parish, Jones said that as long as St.

John Parish continues to grow at its present rate, a bigger police force will be needed to keep crime in check.

“It is crucial that we maintain the present level of law enforcement,” said Jones.

To do that Jones will need at least $307,000 to keep the 14 officers who were hired under the Universal Hiring Grant. Jones also wants to hire eightmore officers so they can attain a goal of at least 13 patrol officers per shift. Right now they are working with 11 officers per shift.Hiring eight more officers will cost the department $232,000 in salaries.

Plus the sheriff needs to get cars, equipment and training for the new deputies which is an additional cost of $216,000.

Jones justifies the extra officers by pointing out the growth in the parish.

“We are growing at a rate of 300 new households every year,” said Jones.

Add to that the increasing number of 9-1-1 and service calls from 30,383 in 1991 to an estimated 39, 894 in 2000. Plus, there are certain parts of theparish that require more patrols and service.

For example, the sheriff said calls from the Cambridge subdivision in LaPlace have increased dramatically in the past couple of years. Officers who workthat area have to cover both Cambridge and the Belle Terre area, which is a large territory. To maintain good coverage, the sheriff plans to split the areainto two sections which means more patrol officers need to be hired.

“Basically,” said Jones, “we need to grow with the parish.”The sales tax will also go to giving police officers and correctional officers a raise. Since Jones took office he has only been able to give his employees araise once, and he feels that to keep a stable police force he must be able to pay his men a good salary.

The sheriff admitted his department is in the top 10 of all parishes for deputies salaries, and this has created a corps of deputies who want to stay in St. John Parish and make a career here.But Chief Deputy Harold Klibert said, “We have to be competitive with other departments in salary. We could lose officers to other parishes.”Klibert pointed to the recent sales tax increase in Ascension Parish which resulted in at starting salary of $18,500 for a deputy as compared to the St. John salary of $17,500.”I came up through the ranks,” said Jones, “and I know what it is like to face tough financial decisions because of salaries. I want the make it better formy deputies.”Jones also wants to increase the salaries of the correctional officers who work at the Sherman Walker Correctional Center. Right now, their startingsalary is $13,500 a year. Jones would like to increase that to $15,000.The new jail has meant more work and more employees for the sheriff’s department, and the staff at the jail and grown from 152 to 250 employees.

Both the raises for the deputies and correctional officers will add up to $260,000 a year. Along with the salaries for the 14 UHG officers and theeight new officers, the sheriff is looking at $1,015,000 in extra expenses to his budget. The one-quarter cent sales tax he is asking for will bring in about$2 million.

This will be the first time the sheriff has asked for a sales tax for his department and the first time since 1981 that his department has asked for any revenue hike. In 1981 Sheriff Lloyd Johnson got a millage proposal of 15mils passed.

“I think this is a fair amount,” said Jones of the sales tax. “I think the salestax is the fairest way to raise revenues. Everybody needs police protection,and as the parish grows so will the sales tax.”Klibert said St. John is not alone and pointed out that Ascension, Lafourche,Plaquemines, St. James and St. Bernard parishes have all raised their salestaxes to finance law enforcement.

Klibert said research shows that an average family of four living in St. JohnParish will pay an average of $40 more a year if the sales tax is passed.

“The funds are needed, and they will be spent responsibly,” said Klibert. “Ournumber one priority is safety, and this money will give us the bare bones approach we need to maintain that safety.”The sheriff’s department is facing other unexpected expenses. Because ofthe recent rise in gasoline prices the cost to fuel up the fleet of patrol cars will increase by $70,000 next year. Also, the health insurance premium forthe department has increased by $150,000 a year.

The sheriff mentioned other services his department provides and some of them at no cost to the taxpayer. St. John is the only parish that doesn’tcharge to unlock car doors for citizens who have locked their keys in the car.

“We provide traffic control for schools at no cost to the parish,” said Jones, “and we do escorts for weddings and funerals for free. Other parishescharge for these services.”The sheriff also provides the resource officers who patrol the parish public schools. The sheriff’s office pays 50 percent of the salary for the resourceofficer with the school board picking up the rest.

“This is costing us about $50,000 a year, but we felt it is worth it to help out the schools,” said Jones Even though Jones is hoping the sales tax referendum will pass, he doesn’t want to appear like he is brow beating the public.

“This is not a give-it-to-us-or-else situation,” assured Jones.

If the tax fails, Jones said the present number of deputies will remain unchanged.

“We will make every conceivable effort to keep these guys and go after the tax again,” said Jones.

“We have alternate plans for a worst-case scenario,” said Klibert. “But thetax will mean improved response time and effectiveness. We feel that this isa reasonable amount that will keep us operating at our present level. Andcontinuing our level of service is what it’s all about.”Jones is optimistic about the referendum. During last week’s Night OutAgainst Crime he went to many parties across the parish, and he said he was surprised by the promising attitude of people.

“Citizens came up to me and talked about the tax,” said Jones, “and all the responses were favorable.”He added, “I think this is a fair request, and I hope we have proved ourselves to the community.”

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