City-parish talks tax to fund police precinct
LAFAYETTE — The search for money to pay for enhanced police patrols downtown has sparked talk about a new tax for the area.
City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents downtown, said he is exploring a possible property tax or other type of assessment on all businesses there to fund a new police precinct.
The tax could replace a controversial special security fee that had been charged only to downtown bars to help fund weekend police patrols along Jefferson Street.
“I think everybody should participate,” Shelvin said, arguing that police not only provide security for the bar crowds but also protect all businesses and property downtown.
Shelvin also said a new downtown precinct could offer better security in general for downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, not just along Jefferson Street on weekend nights.
The Police Department spends about $500,000 a year on overtime for a special police detail that works the weekend bar crowds on Jefferson Street.
About half of that expense had been funded with a security fee assessed to bars in the area, but the council in April suspended the fee after several bar owners filed lawsuits challenging it.
Councilman Jay Castille said he is lukewarm to the idea of asking all businesses to chip in for the additional downtown police expense, considering the beefed up police presence is needed mainly because of the large weekend bar crowds.
If the bars are making money on those crowds, he said, then the bars should foot the bill for the Police Department to keep those crowds in check.
“I still feel that the bars should pay for the whole security detail,” Castille said.
Councilman William Theriot said he is reluctant to take a firm stance just yet on Shelvin’s idea, but he generally opposes any tax increase.
Theriot also suggested the Downtown Development Authority do more to support the police patrols with revenue from a special property tax already collected from businesses there.
All downtown businesses now pay an extra 10.91-mill property tax that generates about $350,000 a year, said Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Cathy Webre.
She said the money is used for staff, economic and cultural development initiatives, cleanups and a $55,000 payment to the Sheriff’s Office for security services above and beyond what the Police Department offers.
Even if those programs were scrapped, the $350,000 in annual revenue is not enough to pay the Police Department’s current overtime expense for the weekend bar detail.
Webre said she hopes any discussions about a possible new tax would be made in collaboration with the downtown community.
“It’s a timely opportunity for everybody to get back together and look at the big picture,” she said.
The council imposed the bar fee in 2009.
The overtime expense has been hovering around $500,000 a year, and bar owners balked as their security fees steadily climbed, rising to $150 per month for smaller bars to $5,000 per month for larger bars.
Seven bars filed lawsuits earlier this year seeking to repeal the fee, arguing it improperly singles out one group of businesses to pay for a standard public service.
The suspension of the bar security fee leaves a budget gap for the downtown detail that could be tough to fill, considering the city-parish administration estimates next year’s budget will have to be $5 million leaner than this year’s because revenues are not keeping pace with expenses.
Police Chief Jim Craft told council members last week he is planning to trim about $100,000 from the downtown detail’s annual expense, dropping from $500,000 to less than $400,000.
“We reached a point where we were forced to scale back the operation,” the chief said.
If there is no tax or special bar fee in place, city-parish government still needs to find the money to allow the police to keep order in an area where thousands of bar patrons descend each weekend, Castille said.
The councilman said he fears that drunken arguments could quickly escalate if police officers are not downtown to keep the peace.
“We are going to have to find some funding,” he said. “If we don’t have that police presence to prevent that, we are going to lose some lives down there.”