Chalmette, La. - Homeowners in St. Bernard Parish could soon be facing higher property taxes. St. Bernard Parish Sheriff James Pohlmann is seeking to put a 15-mill property tax increase on the ballot on April 6th.
Since taking office last July, Sheriff Pohlmann has already been forced to lay off 50 employees. He says despite those cuts and continuing cost-saving changes, his department still faces a large deficit. Pohlmann says the parish is feeling the effects of a national economic downturn. He also says things are made worse by Hurricane Katrina's lingering toll on the parish's tax base which hasn't recovered sufficiently to fund the operations of government agencies.
The 15 mills would bring in an estimated $4.5 million a year for 10 years, when the tax would expire. Based on a home valued at $150,000, with a homestead exemption, the tax would cost an owner less than $10 a month, the sheriff said.
"I have cut the budget in many ways and have reduced the number of employees from 315 in January 2012 to 265, the lowest number in many years,'' Sheriff Pohlmann said. By comparison, there were 380 sheriff's employees before Hurricane Katrina.
"It would be difficult to cut the number of employees further without jeopardizing the Sheriff's Office's ability to keep St. Bernard safe, our Number 1 responsibility,'' he said.
"We have about 38,000 residents compared to the 68,000 here before the storm,'' the sheriff said. "While some new businesses have come to the parish, we have also lost several large supermarkets and other retail outlets which didn't return after Katrina, ones that helped bring in sales tax needed to run government agencies. Our parish economy is smaller, leaving less tax money to work with.''
"And despite a smaller population we are handling almost as many calls for service each year as before the storm," the sheriff said, "making nearly as many arrests, running an adult prison at near capacity and have a juvenile detention center we must keep open because there has be a place to hold juvenile offenders."
Sheriff Pohlmann said, "We have determined, after consulting experts including accountants, economists and other Louisiana sheriffs, that the best way to eliminate the deficit and allow the Sheriff's Office a revenue source that provides the current high level of services is a 15-mill property tax.''
"It would allow us to fill shortages in critical enforcement personnel, maintain our vehicle fleet, maintain and improve our information technology division and operate and staff two sub-stations that will re-open at our parish line with New Orleans,'' he said. Rising insurance costs could also be dealt with.
Previous sheriff's budgets since Katrina haven't accounted for staffing the two new sub-stations that will be coming back at the parish line on St. Claude Avenue and Judge Perez Drive. "Their presence in the past were one of our most effective crime-fighting strategies,'' the sheriff said of the sub-stations.
"We have responded to a money crunch in many ways,'' Sheriff Pohlmann said. "I put a hiring freeze in place by the end of 2011 after I was elected sheriff that fall but was still six months from taking office."
No new jobs have been added and a number of people have been transferred from one division to another to fill in personnel gaps, he said.
"We have also instituted changes in many other areas,'' the sheriff said, "including a major overhaul of the policy on take-home department vehicles, including mandating deputies must live in the parish to be eligible for that. No vehicle is supposed to be taken overnight outside this parish."
"Before I took office we overhauled our rank structure, reducing the rank of a number of people, which also achieved a savings in salaries,'' the sheriff said. The Sheriff's Office has also made other cost-saving changes including ending some professional services contracts and making cuts of in cell phone and land line expenses that will save about $90,000 a year.
"Remember, St. Bernard remains the safest parish in the New Orleans area and one of the safest in the state,'' Sheriff Pohlmann said.
"If a resident or a business needing service calls us we have an excellent response time, particularly for any emergency. That has always been what we are known for,'' the sheriff said.
"And I believe we have the best qualified and best trained personnel we have ever had,'' he said.
"But we need to prepare for the future. To continue to do the things that keeps this parish safe we need the money which makes it possible,'' Sheriff Pohlmann said