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|Juror urges 'yes' vote for tax|
As the time approaches for a vote on the tax to fund OCC, a number of articles, editorials and opinion pieces have been written regarding the proposal. While they raise a number of points to be considered, they also contain information which is less than accurate or they don't follow through to a logical conclusion.
The actual percentage increase in the tax is not 31 percent. The proposed 11.3-mill tax will immediately replace two separate taxes of 8.6 and 0.6 mills that total of 9.2 mills; the increase, while still large, is 22.8 percent. The larger number overlooks the fact that the capital improvement account, while restricted to that use, is adequately funded. We propose to eliminate that millage.
It is suggested that OCC consider dropping financial reliance on state prisoners at a time when that population being housed locally has decreased. The decrease in that population is, along with cost increases and increases in pre-trial detainees, part of the reason for the ongoing financial decline at OCC. For most of the last 10-plus years, receipts for housing state prisoners has obscured the true costs of housing local prisoners by subsidizing a portion of the fixed costs at OCC. As the total number of prisoners declines the amount of fixed costs do not decline. This analysis also does not consider the tasks currently performed by state prisoners that would otherwise have to be filled by salaried employees if housing state prisoners was eliminated. Pre-trial detainees, whether we agree or not, are innocent until proven guilty and cannot be compelled to perform such tasks.
It has been stated that the cost per pre-trial prisoner will jump from $33 to $41 per day. This is not accurate and the numbers quoted are being computed in two different ways and aren't comparable. The $33 figure is the present approximate COST per prisoner. The $41 figure is the revenue represented by the tax. Presently, the revenue is closer to $30/day per parish prisoner, with a portion of that restricted for capital expenditures: less than the per day cost per prisoner. A portion of the proposed millage is to be used to restore cash reserves that have been depleted over the past four years to the minimum 3 month level preferred by auditors. Those reserves will need to be restored regardless of whether the facility is managed publically or privately in the future.
Privatization is an option to be considered. It was considered by the citizen's committee 4 years ago and considered not feasible at that time. This may have changed, and does need to be re-examined. But it will still cost money and will not be without risks. The rates paid by the city of Monroe have been quoted several times recently. There is more to be considered than simply quoting a rate. Monroe, for example, pays this rate only for misdemeanors. They also pay a rate for bookings. Misdemeanors are lower intensity prisoners than the felonies typically housed at OCC. There has also been no indication as to whether this is a recent rate or a rate based on a long-term contract not yet up for renewal.
Recent efforts to explore privatization at the state level for prisoners of an intensity similar to OCC yielded quotes with a minimum 20 years contract that started at $31-$45 per day for the first 3 years with an annual escalator and then JUMPED to $35-48 per day, again with an annual escalator. This works for the state because their present cost for housing prisoners is in excess of $49 per day under the best circumstances. Under a local privatization option a tax levy would almost certainly have to be for a period of time to match the contract. Quoting the Monroe Chamber, in their recent release: "Such an investigation may not necessarily result in privatization." While that study is ongoing, the issues do not go away.
Four years ago, as others have noted, the millage was left at the same level it had been at since 1997. And also as noted, the per diem for keeping state prisoners also increased a bit less than 10percent 5 years ago. Certainly, the revenue generated by the millage increases as property values increase and thus should keep pace with inflation expenses if all other things are equal. However, since 1997 the size of the facility had to be increased multiple times as the number of detainees increased while the number of state prisoners has dropped as a proportion of the total housed. This has had the effect of increasing costs while state revenues are at levels similar to or below what they were 5 years ago. The level of the proposed millage is less than what was originally requested either time 4 years ago and even the current proposed level is higher than it might otherwise be if not for the need to replace the deficits incurred as a result of the shortfalls of the last several years.
It is true that business pays a large portion of any tax assessed. Because of the way Louisiana tax laws are structured, this is true of ANY millage levied. The fact is that the largest 150 companies will pay almost half of any millage levied for any tax, and indeed, this would be true of the other taxes also on the ballot next week.
The Ouachita Parish Police Jury itself is in a very difficult position. Our obligation under state law is to provide a parish jail and food, clothing, and medical care for parish prisoners. The Sheriff has an obligation to staff and operate the jail. For many years in Ouachita Parish that has all been funded through a unitary millage. The proposed measure does contain new provisions that give the Police Jury better controls over expending this millage than have existed previously.
In concluding, it is also instructive to consider the recent statement by the members of the business community that the Monroe Chamber invited to examine the last data from the last 5 years at OCC: "From our research and review, Warden Newcomer and his staff and the Ouachita Parish Police Jury are doing all they can to maintain expenses under the present setup." OCC has been, and continues, to examine ways to improve that setup but there are many moving parts that all have to work to accomplish those changes.
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