Tangipahoa Parish officials are left scrambling to fix the Parish Jail’s overcrowding and maintenance issues after voters Saturday defeated a tax proposal that would have funded a new facility.
Officials said the parish still needs to address its jail problems, but they could not think of definitive ways to attack the problem without the tax’s additional revenue.
Sheriff Daniel Edwards, one of the tax’s biggest proponents, said in a statement Saturday that he will analyze the election returns to see if any lessons can be learned.
Edwards has said crime in Tangipahoa, particularly property crime, has increased with the parish’s growing population. He said maintenance of the old jail will cost the parish about $1.4 million a year.
“I’m not sure at this point whether the voters didn’t agree with the sales tax proposal we advanced, or whether the very light turnout on a rainy election day perhaps masked some of the support we thought was there,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he likely will schedule town-hall meetings to listen to voters’ ideas about finding more jail space.
Parish officials were pushing a 30-year, half-cent sales tax, expected to generate about $8.67 million a year, either to expand the 1980s-era jail or build a new one at an estimated cost of $42 million.
The jail tax vote had been a few years in the making.
Edwards in 2009 commissioned a study to examine a range of issues at the jail, including overcrowding.
The Tangipahoa Parish Council voted in April to endorse a state Senate bill, which eventually passed, that gave the council the authority to call the sales tax election. The council in August approved a cooperative endeavor agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and parish that outlined how exactly the money would have been spent.
That agreement is essentially useless after the tax failed, Parish President Gordon Burgess said.
Burgess expressed disappointment at Saturday’s outcome, both in the results and the low turnout, which he said was around 17 percent of registered voters.
About 54 percent of people who voted in the parish chose no — 7,069 voters against, 5,862 voters in favor.
It wasn’t the proposal itself, which was a few years in the making, that people didn’t like; it’s taxes in general, Burgess said.
Burgess pointed to the existing library tax that went up for renewal Saturday that passed with only 61 percent of the vote.
The parish will just have to keep maintaining the jail as is with the resources available, Burgess said.
“We’re certainly not going to close the jail,” he said.
Parish Councilman Greg Varnado said the idea of passing a new tax for the jail is completely dead now.
“I think it’s people’s opinion that government needs to tighten its belt more,” Varnado said.
Varnado said the parish has to brainstorm on how to handle the jail’s failing infrastructure.
He said some kind of parish money will have to be budgeted toward its repairs.
“It may be that we need to send some state prisoners back and make some room in the jail,” he said.
Councilman Louis Joseph said the parish must assess what went wrong with the tax proposal before ever trying to push it again — which Joseph said he believes will happen because of the jail’s ongoing issues.
Joseph expressed worries about federal officials stepping in if overcrowding continues to increase.
“The jail is still in disrepair,” he said. “In fact, the problems may increase.”
Hammond Police Chief Roddy Devall touted the idea of a smaller, parishwide misdemeanor facility to address overcrowding.
He said misdemeanors are the biggest problems in the parish’s municipalities.
Devall, though, said he wasn’t sure what the cost or source of revenue to build such a facility would be.
“They (the public) want the people to go to jail, and yet they don’t want to have to pay for it,” he said. “It’s kind of a catch-22.”
Ponchatoula Police Chief Bry Layrisson said there’s always a chance the tax could pass again at a later time. But for now, law enforcement officials will have to perform their jobs with the resources they have.
“The sheriff and the parish government are just going to have to continue meeting with the parish voters,” Layrisson said.
Layrisson said he wasn’t sure of any other way to build a new jail without additional revenue, but suggested there could be ways to move around funds to free up some money to effectively maintain the jail.
“I think the leaders need to continue making this a priority,” he said.