Ascension considers new tax to house juvenile offenders

The Ascension Parish Council is considering levying a 1-mill parishwide property tax to pay for housing juvenile offenders and potentially building a new detention center.

The Parish Council’s Finance Committee on Monday recommended an ordinance levying the tax. The ordinance must still be approved by the full council at its next meeting on June 20.

The parish’s sheriff, district attorney and three judges spoke to the committee about the challenges facing the parish with housing juvenile offenders. The parish sends its offenders to the St. James Youth Center, which will close at the end of the month.

Parish officials are working on a deal to send offenders to the new Assumption Parish Youth Detention Center that will open by July 1.

“Parishes of our size have, frankly, juvenile delinquency issues,” Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said. “We have them. Our head is not in the sand about this.”

“I wish I could tell you that we don’t need a juvenile detention center, we don’t need any beds, that things are going great,” Ascension Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert said. “Realistically, that’s not the case.”

State Revised Statute 15:1099.5 provides the Parish Council authority to levy the 1-mill tax for up to 20 years “for the purposes of acquiring, constructing, equipping, operating, maintaining, and managing a youth center and providing rehabilitative programs within a structured environment for children who enter the juvenile justice system.”

The parish is negotiating a deal with Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack, who will operate the new juvenile detention center in Assumption Parish, to guarantee 10 beds per night to Ascension Parish.

Parish Attorney O’Neal Parenton said Ascension might receive a small discount with the multi-bed deal, but at the $130 daily rate Waguespack plans to charge, the parish would pay nearly $475,000 annually for the 10 beds. Any additional beds needed would cost the parish $130 per day each.

The 1-mill tax would increase the annual property tax on a $175,000 property with homestead exemption by $10. One mill in Ascension Parish generates approximately $950,000 annually, said Justin Champlin, chief deputy assessor for Ascension Parish.

Any leftover money generated by the tax will be placed into an escrow account for the future construction of a juvenile detention center in Ascension Parish, officials said.

“We have to be able to house juvenile offenders in this parish,” 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin said. “A lot of people are putting in a lot of time to make something temporary work, but what we have now is temporary. Sooner than later, we will need a permanent facility.”

Teri Casso, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said levying the millage was a way to plan for the future, something the council is accused of not doing enough and also something past councils failed to do.

“The failure to plan and act is gonna result in a serious drain on our finances,” Casso said. “It will also result in lost young people. Lost juveniles to crime become adult offenders, and ‘big-boy’ prison is more expensive than juvenile prison.”

Several other council members said paying to house juvenile offenders places a serious financial burden on the parish, and the proposed new millage would create funding dedicated to addressing the problem.

“Admittedly I am, and I believe we all are, torn between always weighing yet another tax against what’s no doubt greatly needed in this parish,” Councilman Daniel “Doc” Saterlee said.

Judge Guy Holdridge with the 23rd Judicial District Court said he was pleased the Parish Council was addressing an issue that has mostly been left alone during the past several decades.

“We’ve put Band-Aids over the problems for 23 years, but this is actually a plan where we not only take care of the immediate problem,” Holdridge said, “but looks to the future to take care of the future problems that we know are coming.”