St. John Parish voters to decide on raising sales tax to 9 percent

With election day getting nearer, St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre has been making the rounds to lobby support for his proposed quarter-cent sales tax hike in the parish.

“I think I have done a better job of fully explaining exactly what this is all about and what I’m trying to achieve,” Tregre said recently about his second attempt to persuade voters to pay an extra $2 million a year in sales taxes so his office can hire more deputies and add crime cameras.

“My main message is: ‘Give me the tools I need to keep St. John Parish safe. Give me the resources I need to keep St. John Parish safe.’ That’s what I’m asking.”

The proposed increase fell short by 453 votes in April. Tregre blames that outcome on bad timing, noting that the vote took place at about the same time as Gov. Bobby Jindal was pitching his controversial — and later scrapped — plan to replace the state income tax with a higher sales tax.

Tregre’s proposition, if approved, would raise the parish’s overall sales tax to 9 percent for a decade.

He wants to use the extra money to improve salaries for deputies, hire more staff and install additional crime cameras at busy intersections and entrances of major subdivisions.

The election is slated for Oct. 19. Early voting runs through Oct. 12.

For a family in the parish making about $40,000 a year, the sales tax increase would cost about $40 annually.

The department borrowed $3 million to meet expenses in 2012; Tregre said it’s on course to borrow $4 million this year.

“The first time (the tax hike) failed, I was disappointed, but this time, I feel pretty good,” Tregre said.

“We’ve done a better job getting the message out. The officers have been engaged; citizens have invited me to come speak at functions. I think people are more aware and more knowledgeable this time.”

The crime cameras cost between $2,000 and $20,000 apiece, depending on whether they have special features such as zooming capability and nighttime vision.

Tregre touts the equipment as a critical tool for his office, and credits video surveillance for helping solve high-profile crimes like the Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans. In St. John, he said, a surveillance camera in LaPlace recorded three men running from a fatal shooting inside a house on Ellerslie Avenue in July.

The Sheriff’s Office currently has about 45 cameras. Tregre points to a rise in violent crime in St. John as a reason for adding more: According to department statistics, St. John had 10 criminal homicide cases in the first five months of 2013, up from four in the same period a year ago. Robberies also rose 67 percent in that time, from 12 to 20, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Overall, St. John has had 13 homicides so far this year, compared with nine in 2012.

“The biggest thing that we’ve had to go on, really, has been these homicides,” Tregre said. “That’s the attention getter, you know what I’m saying? That’s what wakes everybody up.”

The prospect of adding crime cameras has gained support from the parish’s top prosecutor as well as some residents.

Describing them as “a helpful law enforcement tool,” St. John District Attorney Tom Daley said footage captured on parish surveillance cameras has not been used in any trials, but it has been used as leverage to reach plea deals with criminal suspects.

“It was pretty dynamic. The defense attorney got a copy of the footage, showed it to his client, and we were able to get a plea out of it,” Daley said. “That’s what’s so helpful about it. It’s not what somebody thinks they remember seeing; you actually have digital imagery that is pretty compelling.”

Residents have also taken notice. In July, the Summerlin Lake homeowners’ association gave $2,000 to the Sheriff’s Office to buy and install a crime camera in the LaPlace subdivision.

Edwin Martin, the association’s president, said an attempt to start a neighborhood watch program attracted few volunteers. The surveillance camera, he said, was “obviously the right thing to do.”

“The main thing for me is to make sure that my wife is safe,” said Martin, 65, who raised the money for the camera from association membership fees, about $200 a year.

“With the cameras, you don’t have to do anything and you’re protected,” he said. “In our subdivision, there’s one way in, one way out, so in order to do anything major, you have to have a vehicle and we’ve got you. It really means a lot, I think, for us to have that camera there.”

The Sheriff’s Office, with about 255 staff members, had a $23 million budget in 2013, Tregre said.

The starting salary for deputies is about $24,800 per year; it jumps to about $35,700 for a deputy on patrol with the proper credentials.