Trouncing of tax plan no surprise to mayor



Tuesday, July 20, 2004
By Paul Bartels
St. Tammany bureau

Twice in less than two years, the voters have made it clear they're not ready to increase their taxes for capital improvements in Slidell or for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office operations.

The latest no-mandate from the electorate came Saturday, when voters crushed quarter-cent sales tax increases for both by huge margins, according to complete but unofficial returns in both elections.

The quarter-cent sales tax for a major drainage improvements program in Slidell picked up only 32 percent of the vote, while Sheriff Jack Strain's law enforcement district tax fared worse with only 30 percent parishwide.

The city proposal would have brought in about $2.2 million a year to help finance more than $20 million of projects. It carried only one of 32 precincts. It could be argued that it also carried a near-empty precinct in which only one vote was cast.

'I was hoping'

The election came 14 months after Mayor Ben Morris' more ambitious initiative -- a half-cent tax for the "Invest Slidell" streets, drainage and public safety program -- was rejected by 73 percent of the voters.

City Hall wasn't surprised by the outcome of the latest, hastily called tax election. Indeed, several council members and administration officials privately acknowledged before the election that they weren't optimistic about its chances.

Morris indicated Monday he was "not really" surprised by Saturday's verdict.

"I didn't buy a case of champagne for the celebration, but I was hoping," Morris said.

Morris said he had thought "maybe we would have a shot. You know what the No. 1 priority is? Drainage. Drainage is the No. 1 priority. . . . The people seem to have the idea that someone is going to come in and fix everything . . . that we can do it within our budget. I don't know what goes through people's minds."

The one thing on which all concerned agree is that another tax election for capital improvements is years away, when current problems have become more severe.

"Two strikes and I'm out," Morris said of the tax failures in May 2003 and Saturday. "Enough's enough. If we'd lost by 10 votes, then that might be something else."

Meanwhile, two of the six pumps have failed at the big Schneider Canal drainage station on the southern edge of the city.

They were clogged by debris sucked into them because they don't have debris rakes and screens, Morris said. City workers last week hauled them on a flatbed truck to Dallas for repairs that are expected to cost $50,000 to $60,000, he said.

Teamwork urged

Slidell City Council President Elsie Burkhalter said Monday "the citizens in two different elections have spoken loud and clear. They're not for any more taxes at this point. . . . I don't think that in the next two years this council or this administration will be ready to go back to the people again."

And, the next time out, Burkhalter said, City Hall should appoint a citizens committee representative of the community to study Slidell's drainage needs and, with input from city officials, come up with a plan of its own.

"People like to be part of the solution," she said. "Let the community take the lead."

At-large council member Pearl Williams, one of two council members who voted against calling another election, said the city, other municipalities and St. Tammany Parish eventually may want to work together toward a tax-backed, parishwide drainage improvements program.

Williams said Saturday's proposition was "doomed from the get-go" because the mood of the electorate was clear, the tax was on the same ballot in which the sheriff sought a quarter-cent sales tax parishwide, and the city proposal was for an indefinite tax.

"It's sad, because there are people who need help with drainage projects," she said. "Now I don't know where we go from here."

Expansion plans shot down

Strain, meanwhile, wasn't talking. He didn't return telephone calls seeking comment Monday. Spokeswoman Tiffany Tate said he was in meetings all day.

Strain had said the tax was needed to expand the Sheriff's Office to keep pace with St. Tammany's population growth.

He had planned to add 45 deputies and support staff to the 611-employee department, which has more than doubled in size since Strain took office in 1996.

The tax, which would have yielded about $7.9 million a year, representing a 20 percent increase in the sheriff's $38.7 million budget, was supported by a majority of votes in only four of 149 precincts.

The margin of defeat was much greater than in November 2002, when 54 percent of voters opposed a 12-mill property tax sought by Strain. That tax would have generated about $7.7 million a year, primarily for employee raises.

. . . . . . .

Staff writer Paul Rioux contributed to this story.
Paul Bartels can be reached at
pbartels@timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2854.

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