St. Tammany Parish Council cuts taxpayer cash going to finance Coroner’s Office

The St. Tammany Parish Council, which has been battling with Coroner Peter Galvan for months over his lavish spending practices, made good on a promise to reduce the millage rate for the office, voting 13-0 Thursday to set the rate at 2.96 mills, a 12 percent reduction.

Councilman Marty Dean arrived late and did not vote on the issue.

The lower rate will reduce revenue to the Coroner’s Office by about $750,000 per year, said Councilman Gene Bellisario, who offered the amendment to reduce the rate.

Voters had approved a 4-mill tax for the office in 2004, but that amount was rolled back to 3.38 mills because of increases in the assessed value of property. That rate brought in about $5 million in revenue for the office.

But the Parish Council, reacting to reports of extravagant spending and high salaries by Galvan, said in March that it would review the office’s operations to determine how much is actually needed to satisfy debt payments and efficiently run the office. Council members said then that they planned to use their authority to set millage rates to give taxpayers some relief in their December property tax bills.

Bellisario said Thursday that a group of council members has been reviewing finances at the Coroner’s Office since then. The goal, according to Councilman Reid Falconer, was to ensure that revenue was sufficient to satisfy a 2009 bond issue for the office and to operate the office.

Even with the drop in revenue, Bellisario said that there will be no adverse impact on operations or any staff reductions — which he said shows the office was getting more money than needed.

The Parish Council has been vocally critical of the high fund balance at the Coroner’s Office, about $6 million.

The Parish Council plans to maintain the 2.96 mill rate for the next two years, and will review the matter again at that time, Falconer said.

“Over the next two years, we will put $1.4 million back into the pockets of the public ... to spend how they see fit,” Council Chairman Jerry Binder said. “The money is not needed in the Coroner’s Office for the next two years,” he said.

Binder said that the Parish Council was careful not to roll the millage so far back that the bonds’ AA rating would be jeopardized.

The vote was taken with little discussion and no comments from the audience. No one representing the Coroner’s Office came forward.

The Parish Council first talked about reining in the taxpayer money Galvan’s office received at the same meeting in which it passed a resolution seeking his resignation. Since then, the Parish Council has gained considerably more leverage over the office with the passage of a state law that gives the parish authority to set salaries and approve contracts and purchase agreements.

The Coroner’s Office has challenged the constitutionality of the law, filing suit the day after the law was adopted. Earlier this week, Judge Wilson Fields ruled in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge that the suit should be heard in 22nd Judicial District Court in St. Tammany Parish where it likely will be combined with another lawsuit dealing with the law, filed by the parish.

The law, authored by Rep. Tim Burns, was adopted after spending by Galvan’s office came to light. The Coroner’s Office is under investigation by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office and a federal grand jury.

Galvan’s own salary — about $239,000 last year — can’t be altered by the Parish Council because it is constitutionally protected. But the council flexed its muscles at a special meeting last week when it rejected the coroner’s request to set the salary for the chief executive officer at $115,000. The council voted to set the salary at $80,000. Melanie Comeaux, who resigned as CEO at the end of May, was paid $125,000.