Jefferson ’13 budget threatens task force

Jefferson Parish’s proposed 2013 budget continues the parish’s conservative approach to budgeting, but one of the projected cuts proposed by Parish President John Young has created some angst among local law enforcement officials.

Young officially presented the budget to the Parish Council on Wednesday, although council members have been reviewing the document since early October. Young’s budget projects roughly $553.5 million in revenues and $562.4 million in expenditures. That projected revenue is about a 6.2 percent decrease from what the parish has already collected through October of this year.

Young said the parish is budgeting conservatively given the national economy and sluggish sales tax revenues. The council deferred a vote on the budget until next month, and officials will discuss changes to the document throughout the next few weeks.

Young said his biggest concern is protecting the parish’s general fund, which is the driver behind the parish’s AA bond rating. Young is looking to maintain a 10 percent reserve in the general fund and would like to increase that reserve to 15 percent in the next few years.

“Protecting the general fund is our most paramount goal,” Young said. “Everything we do from this point moving forward should be looked at based on how it affects the general fund.”

The general fund pays for many functions in parish government along with the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, the 24th Judicial District Court, Juvenile Court, both parish courts and corrections. Young’s focus on maintaining the general fund reserves is one of the reasons he has decided against raises for parish employees this year, he said.

Despite the difficult fiscal times, Young said the parish is poised for great growth with opportunities from the expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge, which might be completed in the spring or summer. Young expects the West Bank, and developments near Avondale and Westwego, to spur the parish’s economic and population growth. To that end, he expects to spend more than $57 million on public works capital projects in 2013.

“I’ve always said the West Bank is the future of Jefferson Parish,” Young said. “We need not more taxes, but more taxpayers.”

But one of the cuts in Young’s budget was roughly $90,000 in funding for the West Bank Major Crimes Taskforce. That entity is composed of officers from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, Westwego Police Department and Gretna Police Department.

It also has included officers from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office and New Orleans Police Department at different times. Chief Operating Officer Chris Cox said the parish understands the value of the task force but tough spending decisions had to be made in the budget.

“Unfortunately, there were a lot of cuts in a lot of different areas,” he said.

Created after Hurricane Katrina, the task force allows officers to track criminals across several jurisdictions, which was important given the transient nature of the criminal population following the storm. It has a conviction rate on its arrests of about 80 percent and has made several key busts involving weapons and narcotics. Funding for the task force pays the overtime pay for the officers who participate.

Parish Councilman Chris Roberts expressed concern that funding for the program was being stripped when the state is still providing its share. He said it seems like a case of misplaced priorities.

“In my mind that’s about the best $90,000 we spend every year,” Roberts said. “This is something that we have funded since Hurricane Katrina. I think the success of the task force speaks for itself.”

Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Newell Normand urged Young to reconsider the cut noting that the task force remains a driving force behind maintaining public safety on the West Bank. Normand said gains have been made, noting that crime is approaching its lowest rate in Jefferson Parish since 1974. But if funding is cut, those gains could be reversed, he said.

Collaboration between law enforcement agencies remains crucial, and the task force helps with that issue. The parish’s contribution shows a local commitment to the program, which helps secure state support.

“I think we’ve been thus far very, very successful in this endeavor,” Normand said. “I don’t know that at this particular time it is a prudent move.”

Roberts promised to fight to find the funding for the task force and also presented Young with a list of eight other changes in the budget he would like to see.

“It would be a different story if we were providing this money to the task force and couldn’t show a result,” Roberts said.