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|OCC tax explained|
Roughly five years ago parish voters approved two property tax propositions for the Ouachita Parish Police Jury to pay for operating Ouachita Correctional Center as well as to make improvements to the parish prison.
At the end of this year, the two property taxes will expire. Property taxes collected for OCC in 2011 will be spent in 2012, though the revenues generated by the existing property taxes do not cover OCC's expenses.
The existing property taxes are an 8.6-mill levy and a .6-mill levy. The 8.6-mill tax pays for general operations at OCC while the .6-mill tax pays for capital improvements at the parish prison.
The Police Jury is asking parish voters to do away with the two existing property taxes and approve an 11.3-mill property tax. The new tax would generate roughly $9.8 million annually. It would be levied for five years.
Parish voters will go to the polls Saturday, April 30, to entertain the new property tax for OCC. Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
For the past few years, OCC has engaged in deficit spending. The parish prison closed out the 2010 fiscal year with a $1.5-million deficit. This year, OCC is expected to close its books with a $2-million deficit. OCC has limped alone financially because the prison has a cash reserve accumulated from previous years, but the cash is running out. The cash reserve will be completely depleted by the end of this year, meaning OCC will not be in a position to dip into a cash reserve next year to make ends meet.
Deficit spending at OCC can be attributed to two key factors. No. 1, the parish prison is housing fewer Department of Corrections (DOC) inmates than it did in the past. No. 2, personnel costs at OCC have sky rocketed over the past decade.
DOC pays a parish prison roughly $24 per day for each DOC inmate the prison houses. That's $24 per day on top of any taxes a parish governing body may collect to operate a parish prison. It cost roughly $33 per day to clothe, feed, house and provide medical care for each prisoner. The property taxes the Police Jury currently collects for OCC generate about $30 per day for each prisoner.
For OCC to operate at a break-even point financially, it needs to house about 400 DOC inmates each day. The prison has been housing anywhere from 200-250 DOC inmates each day, and that number is not expected to rise significantly anytime soon because DOC simply is not farming out DOC prisoners to parish prisons, so to speak, as it did in the past. That's a DOC policy, plain and simple, and there's nothing OCC can do to change it.
Meanwhile, the number of pretrial detainees housed at OCC has risen significantly over the past decade. Pretrial detainees are prisoners who are awaiting trial. The parish must bear all of the costs associated with housing pretrial detainees.
In 2001, personnel costs at OCC were roughly $3.2 million. By 2010, that figure had risen to roughly $7.7 million. Along the way, the average total salary cost per full-time equivalent employee rose from $20,303 in 2001 to $37,625 in 2010. Pension expenses rose by 205 percent from 2001-2010.
By law, the Police Jury is responsible for providing clothing, food, medical care and shelter for prisoners at OCC. The Sheriff's Office is responsible for staffing and operating the prison.
In Ouachita, though, the Police Jury reimburses the Sheriff's Office for some of the monies it spends paying deputies who work at OCC. In other words, some of the property tax revenues the Police Jury collects to operate OCC pay for salaries for deputies.
Without a doubt, OCC cannot continue to engage in deficit spending. At some point – probably next year – the Police Jury and Sheriff's Office will butt heads over which office should be responsible for shoring up OCC's finances. On the surface, the Police Jury will be tasked with the chore of making OCC whole financially since it is the Police Jury's responsibility, by and large, to pay the parish prison's expenses.
The problem with that scenario is the Police Jury is not in a position financially to prop up OCC's finances. Make no mistake on that point.
While we are sympathetic with the plight the Police Jury and the Sheriff's Office face in light of the financial problems at OCC, we cannot in good conscience support a tax increase for the parish prison. The prison must alter the manner in which it conducts its business before we will entertain any revenue enhancers for it. Besides, it is a terrible idea to raise taxes in the midst of a recession, and Ouachita Parish, as well as the nation as a whole, is working with a lackluster economy to say the least.
We are especially sympathetic to Police Juror Charles Jackson, who is the lone public official who has worked openly and publicly for passage of the Police Jury's property tax proposition. Agree with him or not, Jackson has exhibited leadership by taking a firm stand in favor of something a majority of the American people opposes at this time – raising taxes. It takes backbone and a stiff upper lip to do what Jackson has done.