BY DAVID J. MITCHELL
River Parishes bureau
July 11, 2012
GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council has the power to levy up to a 1-mill property tax without voter approval to cover the costs of sending juvenile inmates to the St. James Parish Youth Detention Center, the council attorney said Monday.
Council Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. said Ascension and surrounding parishes that participated in the center’s formation about 15 years ago were granted the authority to levy the tax and could enact the millage with a two-thirds vote of the full council. Additional mills would require voter approval, Parenton said.
Parenton’s comments came during a meeting of the Council Finance Committee as 23rd Judicial District Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr. gave a briefing on the center. The judicial district encompasses Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.
The center is just down the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville but is run by St. James Parish and supported by that parish’s tax dollars. Several parishes, including Ascension, pay St. James Parish daily fees of $130 per inmate to house juvenile offenders from their respective jurisdictions.
But the tightening of state standards for the center and other parish-run juvenile facilities in Louisiana has St. James Parish officials looking for added support from the parishes sending juveniles to the center.
Parenton told the council committee that Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez asked him to inform the group of its authority to levy the millage.
The center cost Ascension’s general fund an estimated $462,720 in 2012. The center cost the parish $341,302 in 2011, Parenton said.
Gwen LeBlanc, parish chief financial officer, told the committee, which consists of all 11 Parish Council members, that 1 mill in all of incorporated and unincorporated Ascension would raise $921,722 in 2012.
Kliebert, who handles juvenile court cases in St. James but also has an adult criminal docket in Ascension Parish, spoke about the importance of the center in St. James in dealing with youths who do not have respect for authority.
He said ankle bracelets used for home incarceration have almost become a badge of honor among juvenile offenders, adding that state services to troubled youth have been cut deeply during the past few years.
“It’s like y’all are the last stop, almost. If you don’t do what we need to do to keep that facility running, there is no place to send them,” the judge said.
Kliebert said the center is operating on a deficit, even with St. James Parish’s funding.
“It’s always been a losing proposition for St. James, basically,” he said.
But the Ascension council committee members had a lot of questions about what St. James’ funding needs are.
Kliebert said the new regulations may drive up daily inmate fees to $240, but it was unclear Monday night whether higher inmate fees would cover all of the center’s needs.
St. James Parish government officials were not available for comment Tuesday.
The committee did not entertain any vote on the millage. Committee Chairwoman Teri Casso took the issue under study instead, allowing the council to meet further with the sheriff, district attorney and other officials.