East Baton Rouge voters will see a somewhat familiar measure on their ballots when they head to the polls Saturday: the renewal of a property tax that supports the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office operating budget.
The property tax — or millage — on this ballot is more integral to keeping the office running than other fees renewed in recent years. The 6.9 millage tax has been on the books since 1994 and supports about 33% of the sheriff’s operating budget, according to EBRSO spokesperson Casey Rayborn Hicks. It is up for renewal every 10 years and has been re-approved twice since its initial adoption.
“Basically, the renewal of this millage is vital to maintaining the current operations and services of the agency,” Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said.
The law enforcement millage is one of seven propositions for voters throughout the parish to decide Saturday, according to the Secretary of State. The ballot will also include three statewide constitutional amendments and a regional runoff race for a Public Service Commission seat.
If the millage passes, the Sheriff’s Office would cull from a tax rate fixed at $6.90 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. The 10-year period would go into effect in 2024 and last through 2033. A smaller millage last renewed in 2020 supports about 18% of the sheriff’s operating budget, documents show.
Business-focused groups including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors have touted renewal of the tax on Saturday’s ballot.
“The business community has repeatedly listed crime as a deterrent to successfully doing business in the region and has expressed the need for an increased focus on crime-prevention across all sectors,” Helena Cunningham, chairperson of the BRAC Board of Directors, said in a statement. “Our board recognizes the need for the millage renewal and the potential for an adverse impact on East Baton Rouge Parish if it were not renewed.”
Following years of criticism of conditions inside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, though, some local activists have pushed for more transparency of the sheriff’s spending, asking how the agency intends to use the estimated $35.1 million in annual revenue it would collect if the proposition passes. Communities for Sheriff Accountability, a national coalition of grassroots organizations concerned about sheriff’s offices overreach in their communities, led volunteers who canvassed the Old Goodwood neighborhood on Tuesday, passing out flyers and talking with residents about the proposed tax renewal.
“The people that we’re speaking to here, I don’t really feel like that they will want the change that we’re looking for. But it’s about trying to change their perspective a little bit,” said Chazidy Bowman, a volunteer from the coalition.
Amelia Herrera, the Baton Rouge coordinator for a Louisiana prison reform group Voices of the Experienced (VOTE), works directly with families of former and current inmates to help them navigate the system once they’ve been behind bars. One of her main focuses is conditions inside the parish jail, where she said she’s seen deaths and overdoses unfold.
There have also been sewage backups in cell blocks and inmates deprived of calling their families because only one or two phones work on a tier of nearly 50 prisoners, she said.
“So where is the money going,” Herrera asked. “I think the public would be more confident in the sheriff’s department, and would trust him more, if we knew that he was taking that money and providing services for our community that we need.”
Gautreaux said money from the tax has paid for an array of services over the years, like putting sheriff’s deputies on 24-hour residential and business patrols, outreach initiatives and paying salaries. It would also help fund upkeep of a newly implemented body camera program, he said.
Linda Franks, a founding member of the watchdog group East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said the agency has purchased drones and new police cruisers since another proposition passed in 2020 authorized another source of the Sheriff’s Office’s tax revenue.
Franks said the parish lockup has been run “like there’s absolutely no oversight,” citing a statistic from her advocacy group that at least 59 people have died there since 2012. She, too, called for an improvement of conditions inside the jail and indicated she’d like to see more funding dedicated to community-based solutions that address the root causes of crime, like mental health, poverty and substance abuse.
“Budgets are moral documents,” Franks said. “And when public officials are given the privilege of being able to use our tax dollars, then they have an obligation to make sure that we know exactly where all of those monies are being used so that we can make really good assessments on if we’re using the money in the right way.”
The warden of the pretrial jail has blamed the aging facility’s construction for the introduction of contraband, including fentanyl allegedly responsible for the September overdose of two inmates, one of whom died. Of three people who died there this year, two allegedly died of fentanyl overdoses, the sheriff’s office has said.
The sheriff said his office has recently implemented more frequent, thorough searches of inmates and implemented virtual court call-out and visitation when possible, “which has greatly reduced traffic in and out of the facility, thus reducing opportunities for contraband,” Gautreaux said. Election day polls open Saturday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. East Baton Rouge residents can find their voting sites at geauxvote.com.