Sales tax to be on April 13 ballot

Published 7:21 am Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Richard Meek

The Daily News

Voters in Washington Parish will be asked to approve a hike in the sales tax during a special election April 13.

Also on the ballot will be a proposal authorizing the rededication of a portion of the proceeds of the current sales tax that would allow funds to be transferred from the road fund to the parish’s general fund. If approved, the rededicated money would be designated to pay the mandated expenses for public safety and the criminal justice system.

Parish officials are proposing a .33 percent sales tax increase that would be used to help defray the cost of the parish picking up the expenses of the offices of sheriff, assessor, clerk of court, district attorney and the judicial court. Parish officials expect the increase to generate approximately about $1.4 million annually.

The Parish Council approved both resolutions during its meeting Monday so they could be sent on to the state bond commission for review and approval. Even if both are approved the parish likely would not realize any increased revenue until August 2013, creating the need for budget crunching by all agencies for much of the year.

“I am optimistic we will somehow make it all work out,” Councilman Ken Wheat said. “I’m optimistic the public will support it.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of questions but first and foremost I would ask each person what exactly are the services we are rededicating the money for,” Wheat said. “What services is the parish providing? Public safety and criminal justice.”

If approved, the tax would go into effect throughout the parish excluding Franklinton, which is already at the maximum rate regarding local taxes.

“This tax is for the betterment of the parish,” Councilman Mike Fussell said. “We have to fund these things. It’s mandated by the state. We will struggle the first five to six months (of 2013).”

The rededication is much more complex, finance director Donna Alonzo said. Currently the parish has an annual debt service of $1 million from a loan in 2002 that was used for road improvements, she said. The loan is being paid from a one-cent sales tax increase approved at that time.

However, that loan will be paid off this year, freeing up $1 million that is mandated by the guidelines of the tax to remain with the road department. That and the 10 mills dedicated to the road fund will keep the road department self-sustaining, Alonzo said.

She said paying off the loan allows the $175,000 a year that is going into the road fund out of the general sales tax fund to be redirected, a move that requires voters’ approval.

Out of every general sales tax dollar collected, .67 percent is dedicated to the Choctaw Landfill for maintenance, expenses and capital improvements. After those monthly expenses are met, 15 percent of the remainder goes to Franklinton, Angie and Varnado each receive 1 percent and the parish receives the rest.

Alonzo said it is that 15 percent that can be funneled back into the general fund.

Wheat said Franklinton has agreed to lower its share to 12 percent, which will generate an extra $25,000 that Alonzo said will be used for future construction at the landfill. Parish President Richard Thomas said a new cell may be needed at the landfill in the next two years as the parish continues to grow.

Wheat said Monday he hopes once economic conditions improve in the next two to three years Franklinton’s 3 percent can be reinstated.

“I don’t know that,” Wheat said. “Nobody can promise that.”

Parish President Richard Thomas stressed the rededication involves only existing taxes.

“There are no new taxes,” he said. “This is just a rededication of taxes. There is no more funding.”

The rededication proposal involves voters in Sales Tax District No. 1, which excludes Bogalusa. The proposal will not be on the ballot in Bogalusa.

Officials were hoping to have the sales tax proposal on the ballot in December but a series of misinformation and communications breakdowns by the parish’s financial advisor forced the vote to be moved to April.