Ouachita Parish officials say they are preparing to call an election in the spring to ask parish voters to reconsider a 9.2-mill property tax renewal rejected by voters in Saturday’s election.
In the primary election on Saturday, Ouachita Parish voters rejected the property tax proposition which currently generates some $9.4 million each year to support operations at the parish prison, Ouachita Correctional Center.
The tax proposition—which has been levied by the Ouachita Parish Police Jury for years—failed with 5,964 “nay” votes, or 56 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results released by the Secretary of State. The proposition received 4,656 votes in favor, or 44 percent of the vote.
Some 1,000 inmates are held at OCC on U.S. Hwy 165 South. The property tax represents the main source of revenues for keeping the prison open.
Fourth Judicial District Attorney Steve Tew says his office can continue to prosecute offenders whether there is a prison in the parish or not.
“But this is a public safety problem that is concerning to me,” Tew said. “It’s a public safety issue. It’s a serious issue.”
The Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office operates the prison on behalf of the Police Jury.
“With violent crime the way it is, we have to have a jail,” said Sheriff Jay Russell. “It (the proposition) will be brought back.”
Parish officials have characterized the millage as a “renewal,” referring to voters’ approval of the property tax in past elections.
“This was strictly a renewal,” said Police Jury President Shane Smiley. “OCC is a necessity. The Police Jury is required to have a jail. If we want to continue to attract businesses, we need to keep our parish safe. I do not see how we can reduce the millage, as we are already operating on a 20-year-old millage as it is.”
At its Dec. 6 meeting, the Police Jury is expected to announce its intention to call an election to reconsider the tax proposition at some point in 2022, possibly in April.
In 2011, the parish prison’s budget recorded a revenue shortfall and the Sheriff’s Office could not hire enough personnel to manage the prison’s inmate population, but that changed with the approval of the 9.2-mill property tax in 2012. Parish voters approved the property tax again in 2016.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, several work programs have been established in recent years using inmate labor to save money for taxpayers.
The Sheriff’s Office also has created educational and training programs for eligible inmates to prevent recidivism, or the rate at which criminal offenders return to prison.
In recent years, the Sheriff’s Office has further tamped down on costs by trying to house more state Department of Corrections prisoners than pre-trial inmates at OCC. Pre-trial inmates are detainees awaiting trial in the local court systems, such as those prosecuted at the district court by Tew’s office.