Jefferson Parish voters go to the polls this Saturday to decide the fate of two parishwide tax renewals and a handful of local elections and referenda. One proposition would renew a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to law enforcement. The other would renew a 9-mill property tax for public education. We recommend our readers in Jefferson Parish approve both measures. We take no position on the other ballot issues and elections in Jefferson.
Although levied and collected by the parish sheriff's office, the quarter-cent sales tax benefits all local law enforcement agencies in Jefferson. The tax generates more than $18 million a year, most (approximately $14 million) of which goes to the sheriff's office. Revenues generated within Jefferson's municipalities are dedicated to local police departments.
Sheriff Newell Normand has been a good steward of the sales tax revenues. He has used the funds to hire more deputies and increase their salaries — and to upgrade communications systems and help fund criminal justice system facilities. Thanks in large measure to revenues generated by the tax, Jefferson residents enjoy a relatively low crime rate and fast response times when they call for help. The short response time is even more remarkable in light of the fact that parish deputies get more than 320,000 calls for assistance annually.
This is not a new or increased tax, but merely a continuation of an existing tax. If renewed, the tax would become permanent. That's a good idea, as crime is not a "temporary" problem in any community.
The Jefferson Parish School Board's 9-mill property tax proposition likewise is not a new or increased tax. If approved by voters on Saturday, the tax rate would remain as it is now for another 10 years. First approved in 2003 to finance teacher pay raises, the millage generates about $28 million a year.
Jefferson Parish has one of the state's lowest levels of property taxation for public schools — and by far the lowest in the metro area — at just 22.91 mills. The owner of a home valued at $200,000 by the assessor would pay slightly more than $110 a year as a result of the tax. This is a small amount to pay as an investment in public education.
Jefferson Parish has a largely new school board and a new, reform-minded interim superintendent in James Meza Jr. The new board and superintendent already have tightened the system's fiscal belt in the face of declining enrollments and budget squeezes. Cost-cutting measures include revamping the central administration and closing several schools. If voters fail to extend the millage, the $28 million reduction in local revenues would compound a troublesome budget forecast calling for $25 million in cuts already. School system CFO Robert Fulton says failure to renew the millage could mean laying off nearly 400 teachers — a truly disastrous turn for the system's 46,500 students.
If approved on Saturday, the extended millage would continue to finance teacher pay — and help pay for expanded early childhood education and extended-day initiatives. Both are essential to long-term improvements in public education, which is why the Jefferson Chamber has endorsed the millage renewal.
There's no cheap way to improve public education. The new board and new superintendent have earned the public's trust so far, and we believe voters should respond by continuing to invest in the parish's public schools by renewing the 9-mill property tax on Saturday.
Above all, we hope voters in Orleans and Jefferson will take the time to vote in Saturday's special elections.