Tax proposition vote Saturday

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Supporters and opponents of a proposed sales tax increase are making their final arguments to voters before Saturday’s election, which could affect the financial future of Washington Parish and the way business is conducted for decades to come.

At issue is a proposed .33-cent sales tax increase, which officials maintain is necessary to keep parish government functioning. A defeat, they insist, would result in the almost immediate reduction in parish services, layoffs, and the potential closing of the courthouse for potentially two to three days a week.

The tax would generate an expected $1.4 million annually, which would go directly to the general fund.

“It’s not a scare tactic, it is what it is,” parish finance director Donna Alonzo said Monday of the potential fallout if the tax is defeated. “If you don’t have the funds, you can’t spend them.”

But opponents argue the tax is unnecessary and rail against what they say is the practice of forcing taxpayers to bail out the government.

“The taxpayer can’t be the only source of revenue,” said Beth Mizell, who also opposed a

millage increase for Riverside Medical Center in 2012 that voters narrowly approved but still resulted in layoffs. “This is just another Band-Aid that gets us through this crisis, and there will be another crisis right behind this one.

“We’re constantly being approached, whether it’s an emergency or the horrible threat of what’s going to happen (if the tax fails). Every time there is an issue the taxpayer has to cough up more money out of their own pocket.”

Officials said they have been struggling to make ends meet for the past few years, and in 2012 the parish appeared in danger of ending the year with a $250,000 deficit in the general fund, a violation of state law. The year ended with a balance of just more than $2,000 in the general fund thanks to Alonzo’s nifty number crunching.

For 2013, all of the sub agencies funded by the parish are being forced to cope with a 16-percent across-the-board cut, leaving about $3 million in expenses to be covered from the general fund.

“We’ve cut back on services to the point where we could already be in a lawsuit with our sub agencies,” Councilman Ken Wheat said. “But they know we’re trying to fix the problem. I’ll sleep at night knowing what we’ve offered.”

Officials have repeatedly blamed the parish’s financial hardship on declining revenue and an increase in state mandated expenses.

Sales tax revenue has decreased the past few years since spiking in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when many New Orleans area residents found temporary refuge in Washington Parish. The ad valorem tax, which is the parish’s only other source of revenue along with the sales tax, has also declined, coinciding with a decrease in property values in several areas of the parish during the 2012 reassessment.

In 2010 the parish had to transfer $900,000 from reserves to balance the general fund.

“You’re taxing a smaller and smaller pot,” Mizell said. “In essence, by taxing it you’re not expecting it to grow. We’re becoming less and less competitive with the areas around us between the property tax and the sales tax, and we have less to offer in terms of service.”

State mandated expenses, originally paid for by the state in 1938 but now covered solely by parishes, have increasingly become a source of angst for officials. Those expenses mainly cover agencies dealing with the public safety of parish residents, including the sheriff’s office, the judicial system and the district attorney’s office. Also included are the offices of coroner, clerk of court, assessor and registrar of voters.+

‘We’re constantly being pulled from the sheriff and the jail, to what the DA needs, to what the judges need,” Alonzo said. “It’s these uncontrollable costs that we have to find a way to fund them.”

District Attorney Walter Reed won a lawsuit against Washington Parish in 1988 over the parish paying his office expenses. The court ruled parishes must pay “fair and reasonable” expenses to agencies without defining those terms.

“There needs to be a real situation where the parishes go together and go to the state and deal with these mandated expenses,” Mizell said. “If these mandated expenses are the problem then getting more money from the taxpayers is not fixing the problem. Our legislators need to be standing up for our situation at the legislative level.”

Reed’s lawsuit has not been his only fingerprint on parish finances. More than 20 years ago he allegedly entered into a handshake agreement with parish officials to supplement the funding of his Washington Parish office when he deemed it required expansion.

For more than 20 years records indicate Reed’s office paid the parish $25,000 a month ostensibly to help with expenses. But from August 2007 through March 2009 all payments were stopped.


In April 2009 Reed’s office began paying $16,000 monthly, a reimbursement that falls short of covering the added expenses and leaving the parish to pick up the additional $13,000 a month.

The parish was counting on $1 million in reimbursement but was forced to write off $800,000 in 2012, which helped to create the current fiscal shortfall. Reed, through a spokesperson, has repeatedly denied the existence of such an agreement.

When asked, Alonzo said if Reed had paid what parish officials believed was owed then the tax proposal might not be on the ballot Saturday.

“That’s the straw that broke the parish’s back,” she said. “If they had been funding (as previously) we’d still have a little bit of reserve, but we’d still be funding these agencies at bare minimum levels. Depending on other things maybe we could have made it until revenue bonds for roads are paid off in 2017.”

Tax proponents may also be facing a hangover effect from the Riverside fiasco. Hospital officials claimed the ad valorem tax was needed to keep the hospital operational and to prevent layoffs.

But shortly after the tax was approved layoffs were announced.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“It perpetuates a lack of trust,” Mizell said. “The (parish) threats are not really taken seriously like they were before. People just have a lot of questions. When people approach me they are just tired of paying more taxes.”

Based on past history of special elections, voter turnout is expected to be low, but no one is ready to predict who that will favor.

The parish had originally planned to place the issue before voters in a special election this past December. But a confusing series of events caused the parish to miss a mandatory deadline with the state bond commission and rescheduled it to Saturday.