St. Tammany, Covington urge millage renewal
Covington — When St. Tammany Parish voters go to the polls Nov. 6, they’ll be asked whether to renew a public health millage, and Covington voters will decide whether to give their elected officials more flexibility in spending sales tax revenue.
Voters who live in the St. Tammany’s 2nd Water District, an area between Covington and Abita Springs, will also decide whether to approve a bond sale to improve water service.
Covington Mayor Mike Cooper says that his city has needs that voters didn’t envision in 1957 when the 1-cent sales tax was first adopted and that officials need more flexibility to meet public safety needs.
The ballot measure is not a new tax or a renewal, the mayor stressed at a news conference earlier this month. Instead, it’s a rededication that broadens how the nearly $3.8 million in annual revenue from the tax can be spent. The ballot language specifies that the revenue can be used for any lawful purpose, including but not limited to playgrounds and recreational facilities, public roads, streets, bridges and crossings, sewerage, garbage disposal, water works, public safety operations and facilities and other public improvements.
When the tax was first adopted, Cooper said, it did not cover administrative services such as planning and zoning and code enforcement as areas where the revenue could be spent. The original language included fire protection but not police.
“The 1957 tax proposition was suitably broad for its time, but it didn’t anticipate the growing needs of a growing city,” Cooper said earlier this month. “As a modern municipality, we have obligations in areas that were not considered 55 years ago.’’
The tax that funds the Covington Police Department provides less than $200,000 a year, “a fraction of what it takes to keep our city safe,” he said.
Covington has been dipping into its fund balance to pay for services not covered by the sales tax, Cooper said.
“People tend to think of city permits, code enforcement and planning as regulatory departments, and they are,’’ Cooper said. “But the regulations they enforce are designed around protecting public health and safety and overall quality of life. All of these things affect the lives and livelihoods of our entire community.”
St. Tammany Parish voters will also decide whether to renew a 10-year, 1.84-mill property tax that generates about $2.9 million a year to support two parish health centers and other public health activities, most notably suicide prevention.
Parish officials are stressing the importance of renewing the millage in the face of shrinking mental health services in the region and state plans to close Southeast Hospital in Mandeville or turn it over to private hands.
“The public health millage is the cornerstone for many health programs in St. Tammany,’’ Parish President Pat Brister said.
“The largest share funds the Crisis Response teams that work with first responders to assess mental health response to 911 calls.
“We see too many crisis situations that may have been prevented with proper mental health care.’’
The tax provides $758,260 to the St. Tammany Parish Suicide Prevention Initiative, which supports crisis counseling in partnership with the Volunteers of America through the 211 telephone system.
The initiative also provides counselors and mental health professionals to help people in crisis and their families.
The millage provides funding for parish health centers, one in Slidell and one soon to open in Covington, that provide medical services on a sliding scale fee to help people in need.
“In today’s economy, many families find themselves without insurance during job changes, and these centers fill the gap until insurance resumes,’’ Brister said.
Another agency that’s funded by the millage is the Community Action Agency, which oversees $2 million in private and federal grants that provide emergency shelter, low income energy assistance, supportive housing, and weather proofing for low-income and fixed income residents.
The millage also provides funding for Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for events like pandemics or a release of hazardous materials.
The Waterworks District No. 2, which is an area in western St. Tammany between Covington and Abita Springs, is seeking authority to issue up to $985,000 in 20-year bonds, to be repaid with the district’s 6-mill property tax.
A.J. Cigali, general managers of the district, said that the bonds are being sought to upgrade the system, which serves approximately 1,800 customers.
Currently the district has one operating well, and the distirict’s five-member board wants to dig a second well as a backup.
The district also has many 2-inch lines, and the board wants to upgrade to 6-inch lines to handle the higher volume of water that has come with population growth in the district.