OUR VIEW: Upcoming vote important to parish

Published 8:59 am Sunday, March 10, 2013

Voters in Washington Parish will be deciding on much more than an increase in the sales tax when they go to the polls for a special election April 6.

They may well be deciding the financial solvency of the parish, at least for the foreseeable future.

Officials are hoping voters look favorably on the proposed .33-percent tax increase and stymie the financial tsunami that has decimated the parish budget in recent years. In 2012 parish officials struggled to balance the budget by year-end and only did so with some crafty maneuvering by finance director Donna Alonzo.

The 2013 budget is threadbare, and if the proposal should fail officials privately admit unpleasant consequences await, including the potential closing of the courthouse for an unspecified number of days each week. Naturally, not only would such closings result in reduced services to residents, but layoffs, or furloughs at the minimum, would be reasonable to expect.

Tax opponents, and they are gathering in voice and in numbers, claim the tax is unnecessary and residents already turn over enough of their hard-earned income to all levels of government. One could argue they are correct, especially considering employees have seen a significant chunk of more federal tax being taken from their paychecks since Jan. 1.

Plus, the additional costs of healthcare, although technically not a tax, is also making a dent in employee checkbooks. And Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tax plan is still not finalized.

Opponents also point to the Riverside Medical Center debacle of 2012 when residents were told renewal of an expiring ad valorem tax was necessary to keep the hospital afloat. Yet, less than two months after voters approved the renewal, several employees were nonetheless laid off. The hangover from that election could potentially have a negative impact on voters.

However, parish officials claim the sales tax increase is needed for the parish to maintain its current level of services and avoid running a deficit in its general fund, which would violate state law. They cite decreasing sales tax being generated in the parish and an overall drop in property values after the 2012 reassessment, resulting in diminished ad valorem tax revenue, as the two biggest hits to the budget.

State mandates to parish agencies, which must be paid by the parish, also create financial challenges, officials said.

Paradoxically, both sides are correct, and therein lies the dilemma for voters. Most everyone would agree that taxes on all levels are higher than ideal, and another increase would make it that much harder to cover the family’s basic needs.

Yet, the parish’s financial struggles are real and definitely not overhyped by officials hoping to push through a frivolous hike, as suggested by some. If the tax were to go down services would be cut back and the courthouse would likely operate at reduced hours, although there are legal issues that would have to be addressed before enacting such a policy.

Voters simply have to decide if they can afford an additional erosion of the family budget or if maintaining the current level of parish services, including the operation of the courthouse, is more important.

Either way, you, the voter, will in some way impact both the family and government budgets and potentially dictate how the parish will operate in the future.

That is why your vote is so important.