Lafayette residents should not lose sight of the next tax…

   

There has been much discussion over the most recent tax hike being placed on the ballot the weekend of Festival International. Despite the disinformation being spread it is an increase that will put the mileage rate at 15 mils, or a 50% increase over what has been authorized in their enabling legislation, at least for now. If history proves true the tax will continue to increase beyond voter approval for the next fifteen years. According to the Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor, the 13.80 mils collected by DDA in 2021 was second only to 17.88 mil tax collected by the Lafayette Parish School Board. The special election will also cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars.

The voters that will decide the DDA tax in the next few weeks should not only be asking important questions, like: How does this tax benefit me? What do I receive in return for paying this tax? What are the unseen consequences of the tax? Is this a necessary mission? Is this the most fiscally responsible means of accomplishing that mission? But also… What other new or increased taxes are being planned in the near future?

Is there another tax hike on the horizon?

Most likely. There may actually be several new taxes or tax increases ahead for Lafayette residents that pertain only to law enforcement functions. In July of last year there was some discussion of adding a parish wide one cent sale tax to fund the building of a new jail. Then in February of this year, Sheriff Mark Garber speaking to a group of Republicans stated if and when a new jail is built on Willow street “please vote in favor of mileage adjustments to help me fund the staff for that jail.” And let’s not forget about the need for funds to upkeep a new jail facility. After all, the splitting of the 2.51 mileage collected in 2021 to maintain both the jail and the courthouse at has been a topic of debate over the last several decades. Never mind that the jail has its own supplementary, but dedicated tax.

There’s also chatter about building a new courthouse. And, finally, a group has formed to identify how to pay for a new performing arts center. That is at least three new or increased taxes you can expect to see over the next few years.

Is a new jail needed at this time?

Just like with the DDA tax, voters should be asking themselves whether a tax increase to fund a new jail is needed. At a recent event Sheriff Mark Garber stated that the jail was ‘near capacity.’ However, according to public records obtained for the date in question the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center (LPCC) was reported to have an operating capacity of 674 with 115 open beds (17% vacancy), the LPCC Annex was reported to have an operating capacity of 96 with 17 open beds (17% vacancy) and the Direct Supervision Unit was reported to have an operating capacity of 216 with 119 open beds (55% vacancy). According to Sheriff Garber’s own records his occupant load for all facilities is 986 beds with 25% of those beds being vacant on the day in question.

But not only do the numbers of individuals incarcerated in Lafayette not rise to level of the jail facilities being at capacity, the actual capacity limits being reported are much lower than from previous years. For instance, the LPCC operational capacity (674) reported by Garber is much lower that the 754 capacity maintained under Neustrom. Also, the LPCC Annex operational capacity (96) reported by Garber when maintained under Neustrom was used to house 200 prisoners. Those numbers also don’t account for the Vermilion Street complex, which previously housed 208 prisoners, but is now reported to be vacant.

According to the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office report from May of 2021 the operational capacity of the LPCC was 739, not 674 as indicated by Garber and the Annex 139, not 96. The Louisiana Department of Public Health and Hospitals in their December of 2021 inspection didn’t record the capacity.

Who determines operational capacity?

According to the Louisiana Basic Jail Guidelines section II-004: “The number of offenders present does not exceed the operational capacity as determined by the state fire marshal and state health officer. The state fire marshal will determine a capacity primarily based upon exiting capabilities. The state health officer will determine a capacity based upon the ratio of plumbing fixtures to inmates and square footage. The operational capacity will be the lower of these two figures.”

The Louisiana Basic Jail Guidelines have been around for since the early 1980’s and were developed jointly between the Louisiana State Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. In order for a parish or local facility to house a State Prisoner (DOC) the guidelines must be adhered to.

However, according to the Constitution of the State of Louisiana, Article 5, Section 27, the Sheriff is “the Chief Law Enforcement in the Parish.” As a constitutional officer the Sheriff is democratically elected by the voters within his parish and as such the Sheriff is directly accountable to the people of said parish. The Sheriff’s autonomy allows him to act (or fail to act) with little influence or control from other state government entities. Statutorily the Sheriff is also the “keeper of the jail” and has a duty to “by all lawful means preserve the peace and apprehend all disturbers”.

We see this situation playing out in Lafayette Parish, where the Sheriff makes arbitrary and capricious decisions on who he will allow to be booked into the Parish Jail (owned by LCG) or his private jail (operated on Willow Street). So, what are the excuses for the Sheriff’s failure in this respect?

Isn’t the jail facility “overcrowding” the reason the Sheriff can’t book prisoners?

The answer is no. Of the four detention facilities operated by the Sheriff, or three if you exclude the vacant one, none of them are exceeding capacity. The Direct Supervision Unit on the date in question listed that of the ninety-seven prisoners housed at the facility ninety-five were state prisoners (DOC). Some would have you believe the jail facilities are busting at the seams. After all, it helps to support a narrative of the need for a “new jail,” which has been a topic of discussion since July of 2021 when several local officials voiced support for an increase in taxes to support such a measure.

What is to occur when a jail reaches capacity?

Louisiana law dictates the proper course a Sheriff is to take when the jail reaches capacity and Sheriff Garber has not done so. According to state law “if the prisoner population of a parish jail exceeds the rated design capacity of the parish jail for seven consecutive days, the sheriff of that parish shall certify that fact in writing, by first class mail or personal delivery, to each district, municipal and traffic court judge in the parish, to the district attorney and the chief of police of any municipality within the parish, and to the senior official of the parish governing authority.  If this condition exists for seven consecutive days after notification of said officials, the sheriff shall declare a parish jail overcrowding state of emergency and shall notify such officials.” This has not been done by Sheriff Garber.

The only correspondence that remotely resembles notification of crowded conditions dates to 2008. Under then Sheriff Neustrom, an increase in offender programming and alternative incarceration programs for non-violent offenders was implemented to ensure there was adequate space for housing violent criminals. Additionally, in 2014, Sheriff Neustrom also opened the Willow Street complex which was to provide a 30% increase in bed capacity. During his initial campaign for Sheriff in 2015 Sheriff Garber himself was dismissive of questions concerning jail overcrowding. Since taking office Sheriff Garber has eliminated many of these programs, however, despite doing so the daily headcount of prisoners at all of the facilities operated by the Sheriff still remains lower than the 2008 number which prompted concern during the Neustrom administration.

It is interesting to note though that the statute actually contemplates times when a jail will exceed its rated design capacity. The statute also illustrates that fluctuations above capacity doesn’t reach the level of an emergency unless the condition remains for seven consecutive days.

Are national and state COVID restrictions related to the Sheriff refusal to book prisoners into the jail facilities?

Again, the answer is no. In May of 2020 the Sheriff issued a memorandum to local law enforcement agencies indicating that it would no longer be accepting “misdemeanor offenders unless there were extenuating circumstances.” The memo goes on to discuss mitigation measures the Sheriff implemented related to the 2020 seasonal strand, but these were the Sheriff’s actions. Remember the Sheriff is an independent elected constitutional officer. He is the “keeper of the jail.” He is allowed to run the jail as he sees fit so long as it is done legally and he doesn’t breach his duty to “by all lawful means preserve the peace and apprehend all disturbers.”

Garber indicated having “quarantine” and other mitigation measures in place at jail facilities in April of 2021. However, when we requested a copy of those protocols we were told no such records exist. Additionally, the Department of Health and Hospitals has indicated that they didn’t communicate any information to Sheriff’s with regards to reducing prison/jail capacity and/or COVID mitigation strategies. So any action taken to restrict arrest and bookings into jails during that period of time was likely the sole decision of the Sheriffs.

How will building a new jail facility fix the situation?

Sheriff Mark Garber has indicated the need for building a new jail with a capacity of ‘1,000.’ So we are expected to believe that building a new 1,000 bed facility and closing a 954 bed facility will fix the ‘overcrowding.’ A similar scenario played out over four decades ago with the construction of the LPCC. At the time in 1983 the Lafayette Parish Police Jury decided to move forward with building all five floors of the LPCC, but indicated that when the facility opens it would be filled to capacity.

Building a newer facility may provide a better work environment for staff, a nicer and safer living environment for prisoners, and may even save a little money in maintenance cost (at least for a short while), but the plan being presented certainly won’t fix jail ‘overcrowding.’ Nor is it a decision to be taken lightly by voters who are presently fighting with price inflations, rising gas prices (and taxes) along with fiscal irresponsibility in government. Sit back and let’s see where all the fiscal conservatives weigh in when these matters hit the ballot.

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