Current, former sheriffs unite to support tax hike

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 23, 2013

By David Vitrano

LAPLACE – In an unprecedented meeting, former St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriffs Lloyd Johnson and Wayne Jones met with current Sheriff Mike Tregre earlier this week to throw their support behind a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase that will be put before the voters April 6.

The increase would bring sales tax in the parish to 9 percent.

Tregre said the proposed tax will allow the Sheriff’s Office to hire more officers and replace some of the equipment damaged during Hurricane Isaac.

Tregre said there are currently many vacancies in the patrol and corrections divisions.

“Patrol is the front line,” said Tregre.

He added that officers who work in corrections not only help maintain security but also provide the pool from which patrol officers are drawn.

“We’re just trying to make St. John safer,” said Tregre.

The parish has experienced a spike in violent crime since the year began, and although Tregre admits there is nothing that will completely put an end to it, having more officers on the streets, he hopes, will stem the tide. Tregre said under Jones, there were about 13 to 16 patrol officers per shift, but he wants to increase that number to 16 to 20 per shift.

“I’ve condensed the districts and made them smaller to reduce response time,” he added.

According to Sheriff’s Office CFO Jeff Clement, the tax would produce about $2 million per year in added funding, Tregre said he would use to not only hire new officers and replace damaged vehicles and other equipment but also to cover rising health care costs. Clement said insurance costs have risen from about $2 million in 2009 to $3.8 million today, and that is a cost Tregre said he would rather not pass on to his officers. Additionally, he said he does not want to cut the pay of his employees because of the trouble that could breed.

“I don’t need revolving police officers,” said Tregre.

This is not the first time the Sheriff’s Office has asked for a sales tax increase to cover the costs of the department. In 2000, when Jones was sheriff, voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax hike to help cover officer salaries. Jones said he wishes he had just asked for a half-cent increase then.

Tregre said he has already put measure in place to reduce spending, including implementing a fuel management system, restricting take-home units and reducing the cost of prescription medication in the Sherman Walker Correctional Facility, which, he noted, is funded entirely by the Sheriff’s Office.

Despite these measure, Tregre said he is asking for the increase so the Sheriff’s Office can end the cycle of borrowing it often finds itself in. He said, and the former sheriffs agreed, that it is fairly common for the Sheriff’s Office to take out short-term loans to cover expenses at the end of the year.

Jones said he had to do so during his tenure, especially to cover overtime costs following Hurricane Katrina. Johnson said when he took office in 1975, less than $1,500 remained in the general fund, and he had to borrow just to be able to pay his officers.

Tregre said he borrowed $3 million when he took office to cover some one-time expenses but never expected to have to use the entire amount — that is until August brought not one but two tragedies to the parish. Although FEMA will eventually reimburse the Sheriff’s Office some of the money to replace lost vehicles and other expenses incurred, that money could be a long way off. When Tregre took office last year, the department was just receiving its FEMA reimbursements from Hurricane Katrina.

Besides the burden Hurricane Isaac placed on the Sheriff’s Office, Johnson said the department already has a somewhat unique problem in that St. John Parish is one of only a handful in the state that has no municipalities. As a result, the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the entire parish, whereas other parishes can also rely on municipal police departments.

Tregre said he is proposing an increase in sales tax as opposed to raising property taxes to minimalize the effects on St. John Parish residents.

“Every morning there are about 5,000 cars coming through St. John Parish,” he said.

His reasoning is that those who live out-of-parish but must travel through or work in St. John Parish will bear some of the burden.

Early voting in the April 6 election begins today and continues through Saturday, March 30. Early voting offices will be closed on Sunday, March 24, and Friday, March 29. Parish residents can cast early ballots at the Percy Hebert Building, 1801 W. Airline Highway, LaPlace, on the east bank and at the St. John Courthouse, 2393 Louisiana Highway 18, Edgard, on the west bank from 8 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. On election day, April 6, polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.