St. John Sheriff pitches sales tax hike

Six months after failing to persuade voters to pay an extra $2 million a year in sales taxes to hire more deputies and add crime cameras, St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre plans to give the effort another try in October.

Tregre first asked voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax hike in April, which would have pushed the parish’s overall sales tax to 9 percent. The effort fell short by 453 votes, which Tregre blamed on timing.

The April 6 vote in St. John came as Gov. Bobby Jindal was heavily pitching his soon-defunct plan to swap the state income tax with a 6.25 percent sales tax and other adjustments, which Tregre believes may have confused some voters. Coincidently, the Republican governor jettisoned his tax swap concept days after the St. John vote.

“A lot of people didn’t know exactly what was going on with the talk of the sales tax at the time,” Tregre said. “All I’m asking is if you think we’re doing a good job, give me the resources to do a better job.”

This time, Tregre set a 10-year clock on the sales tax hike. This spring, the proposition did not have a sunset date. In an interview this week, Tregre said the money will be put toward improving salaries for deputies, as well as hiring more staff and adding additional crime cameras to busy intersections and at the entrances of major subdivisions.

Tregre plans to take his sales pitch on the road, touting his plan at local neighborhood association meetings. Adding crime cameras is essential, he said, crediting video surveillance with helping solve high-profile crimes such as the Boston Marathon bombing in April and the Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans. In LaPlace, a surveillance camera in July caught three men running from a fatal shooting inside a house on Ellerslie Avenue.

“Crime cameras are essential, necessary, to help, and I think you’re going to see a serious trend with all law enforcement throughout the country on solving cases and using surveillance and crime cameras,” Tregre said.

“Where I’ve been having this rash of crimes take place, I wish I could have more cameras to help me,” he added.

The equipment costs between $2,000 to $20,000 for each set, depending on features, such as zooming capability and night-time vision. He said the cameras used by his office can be moved; the department currently uses about 45 of them.

With violent crime on the rise in St. John, where 13 homicides have been reported so far this year compared with nine in 2012, Tregre said adding more cameras would help.

If the sales tax increase is approved, a family in the parish making about $40,000 a year would pay an additional $40 annually, said Tregre, who plans to immediately hire eight more deputies if his pitch succeeds.

The St. John Sheriff’s Office had a $23 million budget in 2013, he said. The department has about 255 on staff, with deputies rotating between four daily shifts, with 12 to 14 people on per shift.

“I’m spread thin, but the frontline has to be patrolled. They’re the ones that’s out here working these shifts, the most visible and I have to build them up,” he said.

The election is slated for Oct. 19. Early voting runs from Oct. 5 to Oct. 12.

In April, Tregre said two people were killed in separate incidents only hours after voting closed, highlighting the department’s need for additional resources.

The starting salary in the department is about $24,800 per year. For a deputy on patrol with the proper credentials, the pay jumps to about $35,700 annually. Tregre said some of the extra tax money would be used to absorb pension contributions for his employees, which would “give them additional money in their pocket” and potentially help with retention.

“You’ve got to go where the salaries are better or a little higher,” he said. “Everybody’s got expenses. A lot of these guys look for where they’re going to get the highest salary, that’s just what they do.”

The sheriff’s department was forced to borrow $3 million to meet its expenses in 2012, and Tregre said it’s on course to borrow $4 million this year.

“I just want my deputies to have something more, a little better than what they have now,” he said.