Youth reform facility up for vote

Published 7:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2016

David Merlin Duke, president of the Florida Parish Juvenile Justice Commission and the Bogalusa city prosecutor, made a pitch this week for voting in favor of a tax to keep the Florida Parish Juvenile Detention Center open.

Residents of a five-parish area, including Washington Parish, will be asked to vote on the tax April 9. This will be the only item on the ballot.

The tax is not a new tax or a tax hike, but a continuation of an existing tax to keep the area’s only juvenile detention center. Residents voted against the tax last year, and Duke and others worry if the tax fails to pass the second time around, the center may close.

“Eighty-five percent of our revenue comes from the millage,” Duke told the Bogalusa City School Board on Monday during their committee meeting.

The center keeps juveniles who have been accused of anything from criminal property damage and contempt of court to murder, rape and arson and it provides the children with psychiatric services, educational services, medical services and a garden area where the children can grow vegetables for local food pantries.

Duke said the facility is good for the community and for the children who stay there.

“We treat them well,” he said. “They see doctors while they’re there. We’re their parents, for lack of a better word, because their parents can’t be there, but we’re also their psychologists and their counselors.”

Duke said some of the kids come from troubled homes where they can’t get a full night’s sleep and they miss meals. At the center, the youths receive those things.

“A child may not be happy they’re going to Florida Parish, but they’re safe,” he said. “For a lot of the children, sometimes it’s the most structure they’ve had.”

Duke also pointed out that of the five parishes, Washington contributes some of the least amount of funding, but still gets equal use of the facility. In 2015, Washington Parish contributed $464,901 to the facility, which was just 6 percent of the budget. St. Tammany Parish, the wealthiest parish in the five-parish group by home value, contributed $4.5 million.

However, Washington Parish contributed the third-most juvenile inmates at 16 percent of the population, after Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes.

“We’re the poorest parish so we get the biggest bang for our buck from the facility,” Duke said.

He added that based on the median home value in Washington Parish, a homeowner in this parish pays about $1.16 per year. Also, older homeowners who have filed a homestead exemption, pay nothing.

“If you are under the homestead exemption, you pay nothing,” he said. “You get to vote, and I hope you vote yes, but you pay nothing.”

If the facility were to close, Duke said the juveniles would be farther away from parents or guardians and legal help, or they could simply be released back into the community.

Duke added that the facility is open to anyone who would like to visit.

“We’re open for tours and I’ll be happy to arrange one if anyone would like to see it,” he said.

Early voting for the April 9 election begins Saturday, March 26, and runs through Saturday, April 2 from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. excluding Easter Sunday.