The St. George Fire Department is not finished trying to add a tax renewal and increase to the May ballot, making changes fire officials hope will persuade the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council to allow the measures to be placed before voters.
The Metro Council voted this week not to approve placing the tax measures on the May 2 ballot. But instead of walking away, St. George Fire Department Chief Gerard Tarleton said Friday they plan to take seriously suggestions Metro Council members made that they indicated would make them more comfortable about placing the tax measures before voters.
The changes include shortening the length of the proposed tax from 20 years to 10 years and separating into two ballot propositions a 1.25-mill tax renewal from a 2-mill tax increase.
“Hopefully it’ll be popular,” Tarleton said.
In its original form brought to the council earlier this week, the tax renewal and increase were rolled into one, asking voters to up their 1.25-mill tax to 3.25 mills for 20 years. The council voted 6-6 on adding the tax to the May ballot, which caused the measure to fail. The vote took place just minutes after the council also rejected a $335 million public safety tax plan proposed by the mayor, sheriff, District Attorney’s Office and others.
Amid the backlash from that dismissal, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel did not encourage council members to vote for the tax.
“I don’t have a position on it, but I just think if you’re not for our tax, you shouldn’t be for their tax,” Daniel told the council members.
Adding to the controversy were concerns about the proposed city of St. George, which also could be voted on in May. People who live on land that is annexed to Baton Rouge in the next few years would still be paying taxes for the St. George Fire Department under the new tax.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle told Tarleton at the meeting that she would support the tax increase for 10 years but not 20 because of the issue with annexed land. A few others said they would support a renewal but not an increase and tried to amend the ballot proposition but did not have that ability.
The meeting also sparked confusion over whether the St. George Fire Department would lose money without the 1.25-mill tax being renewed this May.
The Fire Department would not lose money for 2016, though it could face a loss of $1.5 million in 2017 if the department does not have another millage renewal or increase approved. Even if the Fire Department does not get its tax on the ballot this May, it could hold an election in the fall or next spring that would prevent any gap in funding.
Bond Counsel Richard Leibowitz said before Wednesday’s meeting that anything meant to appear on the May ballot needed to be approved that night. But Tarleton said he spoke to Leibowitz on Thursday and that they agreed the bond commissioner could accept the council’s approval for an election after the application deadline.
The St. George Fire Department’s current millage is 14 mills, broken up into five different taxes. The department also collects a $32 annual service fee per structure.
The extra tax would have meant bills would go up by $35 annually for homeowners with $250,000 homestead-exempt houses, according to Tarleton. For a $100,000 house, homeowners would have paid an extra $5 a year.
The St. George Fire Protection District Board of Commissioners will discuss changing the ballot item at 4:30 p.m. Monday at 14100 Airline Highway.