Sheriffs in all 64 Louisiana parishes could be in for a financial bonanza if a recent appeal court ruling isn’t overturned. Livingston Parish Sheriff Willie Graves, for example, has already collected about $400,000 in commissions from his parish’s Council on Aging since 2004, according to a news report in The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
Prior to 1978, sheriffs, who are ex-officio tax collectors, received a percentage of all the property taxes they collected for school boards, police juries, library boards and other agencies. Some of those commissions were as high as 20 percent. The funds were used as revenues by sheriffs to operate their departments. However, that system was changed by legislation enacted in 1976 when sheriffs were given authority to create law enforcement districts and levy their own operational taxes.
Eric L. Pittman, attorney for the Livingston sheriff, said state legislators didn’t intend for sheriffs to bear the expense of collecting taxes levied by other agencies after 1978.
The Livingston Parish Council on Aging sued and won a decision from a 21st Judicial District judge, but a three-judge panel from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the district court decision. The Council on Aging was scheduled to decide today whether to pursue an appeal of the 1st Circuit decision.
Jill L. Craft, attorney for the council, summed up the current situation well.
“This affects every single (parish) tax that went on the books since 1978,” she said. “Can you imagine the chaos that will ensue in all 64 parishes? This is ridiculous. Essentially, it allows the sheriffs to double dip. That will be a result of this wrong ruling.”
Craft added, “This makes the sheriffs rich in this state, and they already are rich. We definitely intend to appeal.”
Looking back at the 1976 law that changed the way sheriffs’ offices are financed, it is clear the author of that legislation intended to end the commission system altogether.
Former Rep. Richard Baker of Baton Rouge was author of House Bill 1285 in 1976. It established a law enforcement district in each parish to collect a single tax for the sheriff departments in the state. Other taxes for sheriffs could eventually be approved by voters as well.
“The sheriff ’s appropriations would not be reduced, they would merely be placed in a single tax,” Baker said. “Each (law enforcement) district must levy a millage rate sufficient to generate the total amount of money now taken in the sheriff ’s commission. Once this millage rate is set the voters in the parish would have to approve any increase.
“If the sheriff wants an increase, instead of coming to the Legislature, he has to go to the public and justify an increase. What the sheriff accumulates as surplus, he would keep under these provisions since he no longer has any relationship to any other government agencies.”
The late Rep. Conway LeBleu of Cameron said in 1976, “It will give voters a chance to vote on how much law enforcement they want when a sheriff asks for an increase.”
The intent was clear. Every sheriff was basically told, “From here on out, you’re on your own.”
News reports at the time said sheriffs offered little open opposition to Baker’s legislation. The American Press in an editorial called the new system “a major state reform.”
“One of the major safeguards in our form of government is accountability to the voters,” the newspaper said. “For too many generations the office of sheriff in Louisiana has operated outside of that kind of control and safeguard.
“We have had good sheriffs and bad sheriffs in Louisiana, but the question of local control and local accountability supersedes the question of good and bad. The good sheriffs will welcome local control and accountability to local voters. The bad sheriffs need it.”
The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal panel has obviously found a flaw or a loophole in the 1976 law that allows sheriffs to collect commissions on new taxes levied since 1978. If its ruling is upheld by a higher court, the new Legislature convening March 12 needs to fix the flaw or close the loophole.
The potential loss of revenues to school boards, police juries, councils on aging, library boards, and other government agencies could be staggering. And that raises the possibility that higher taxes would be necessary to fully fund those operations. The Louisiana Police Jury and School Board associations need to lend their legal and other support to the Livingston Parish Council on Aging. It shouldn’t have to fight this legal and legislative battle on its own.
Sheriffs shouldn’t be able to have it both ways — their taxes already approved by voters and additional money from non-profit government agencies struggling to stay afloat.
Legislators over the years have been reluctant to oppose parish sheriffs, but they need to demonstrate some courage on this issue. The appeal court ruling — if upheld — could mean higher taxes for the voters who sent them to Baton Rouge or would reduce the government services their constituents receive from the government agencies that would be affected.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].