No one seemed to ask a question when the St. Tammany Parish coroner purchased 40 acres of land for $1.4 million. The coroner wanted to build a state-of-the-art DNA lab and office building -- no one asked why he needed a large parcel of land that measures a quarter mile on each side.
The building is now complete -- it doesn't come close to filling the 40-acre property.
Dr. Peter Galvan got the land and the building because of a tax measure he got passed in 2004. Galvan went on the offensive, asking for a "yes" vote from St. Tammany Parish residents in a mailer. He said he could help "protect families" by opening a DNA lab. He even used the mother of one of Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee's victims to convince voters.
The millage barely passed, but Galvan got his money -- 4 mills, which comes to about $4 million a year. Galvan used that money to pay for the building, but he's also increased spending in his office.
In 2004, the total payroll for the coroner was $392,000. After he got the millage money, his payroll shot up. 7 years later, in 2011, salaries totaled $2 million.
"Is 4 mills enough? It's what the taxpayers approved," said Parish Councilman Jacob Groby. "Did they approve it blindly? No, they approved it on good faith value that that's what he needed to run his office. If it is proven by looking at his books, such as the auditor's doing, and they said he doesn't need this much money, then I would believe the public and the council would ask to roll it back."
There's more. If you look closer at the coroner's financial documents, it appears he has a large reserve of money. At the end of 2011, $14.4 million.
That means taxpayers have sent their money to the coroner, but he hasn't spent it -- he's holding on to it in reserve.
A St. Tammany Parish government watchdog group says the coroner gets too much money. The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany says our stories "clearly point out that the coroner's office is overfunded at a time when citizens are crying out for property tax relief."
The group says the tax should be "rescinded and replaced" with a much lower tax.
The current tax doesn't expire for another 11 years. Council Chairman Jerry Binder says he's trying to see if the council can hold on to Galvan's tax money.
"I would have no problem voting on putting a percentage of that millage into an escrow account," said Council Chairman Jerry Binder.
The tax money passes through the council to the coroner every year. Binder says his legal counsel is looking to see if it's even possible to hold on to a significant portion of it until the legislative auditor completes an investigation into to office.