Mayor-President Kip Holden is pursuing another capital improvements tax election, marking his fourth attempt to ask residents to increase their taxes to pay for expensive infrastructure improvements in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The plan, which has yet to be finalized, is estimated at $350 million in improvements and new construction targeting public safety initiatives, including a new parish prison, which will be the cornerstone of the proposal.
The cost to taxpayers is unclear, but the Mayor’s Office estimates there could be a quarter-cent sales tax increase to cover construction costs and an additional property tax increase that would cover operational costs.
News of the tax plan was unexpected Thursday, even to most of the Metro Council members who will vote in January on whether to send the proposal to voters in May. Several council members said they have yet to see any documentation detailing the plan and had been briefed only by phone or by staff in passing in recent weeks and, for some, as recently as Thursday.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Holden, said the tax plan includes funds for a new prison and a new building for the District Attorney’s Office next to the 19th Judicial District Courthouse, additional funds to renovate the public safety headquarters building at the old Woman’s Hospital and funds to improve the Juvenile Services Facility. Tax revenue also would be designated to create a mental health center, taking pressure off the parish prison, which is currently housing several prisoners with mental health issues.
“Our old parish prison is out of date, unsafe and very expensive to operate,” Daniel said. “It’s too small, and we’re spending a lot of money sending prisoners out of the parish, which is very expensive.”
Daniel said he’s concerned the inadequacies of the prison have drawn the interest of the federal government, which could seek a consent decree forcing the city to address the problems in a timeline outside of their control.
Holden declined comment because he was out of the office “taking care of personal matters,” said Scott Dyer, a mayoral aide.
On Thursday, an item was added to the Metro Council’s agenda informing council members they’ll be asked to consider calling the tax election for May 2. Council administrator Casey Cashio said the election is merely being noticed at the Dec. 10 council meeting, by requirement of the Louisiana Legislature. But he said the council won’t vote on whether to send the proposal to voters until the Jan. 14 council meeting.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he was notified a few weeks ago about the potential tax election. Currently, his staff is located in City Hall, scattered across several floors with some investigators using old storage closets as offices. The proposed plan would give his office and the public defender’s staff a secured office adjacent to the 19th Judicial District Courthouse, a location he said is valuable “from a security standpoint.”
Moore said he hopes voters will rally to support the additional funds for public safety.
“I know it’s kind of a tricky issue with money, especially coming off the (Capital Area Transit System tax) election,” he said, referring to the politically divisive 2012 property tax election for bus service. “But the bottom line is that it comes down to public safety, and I believe citizens are willing to pay for things to help public safety which yield results.”
Ambitious infrastructure projects have proven to be the hallmark of Holden’s 2½ mayoral terms as his administration has taken on more than $1 billion worth of sewer and road improvement projects.
But attempts to pass a sweeping infrastructure tax package have proven time and time again to be his Achilles’ heel. This likely will be Holden’s last chance to pass a tax plan, because he is two years into his third and final term as mayor.
In 2008 and again in 2009, voters rejected sweeping tax plans valued at $989 million and $901 million, respectively, with funds proposed to build a new parish prison, a new juvenile services facility, a new headquarters for the police and sheriff’s offices, improvements for the City Hall building, traffic light synchronization and expanding the River Center. The proposals also called for more than $225 million for the ALIVE riverfront tourist development, which called for an aquarium, an outdoor amphitheater and scientific research facilities run by LSU, all tied to the theme of the Mississippi River.
The inclusion of the ALIVE component, which many voters considered an unnecessary public project, was widely seen as the downfall of those two proposals.
In 2011, Holden proposed a pared down $748 million tax proposal that would have allowed voters to approve portions of the improvements plan, rather than his all-or-nothing approach in his earlier attempts. However, the council voted against sending that proposal to voters.
Each of the tax proposals, including the most recent iteration, was expected to be financed by issuing long-term bonded debt to be repaid from dedicated taxes.
Daniel said the final plan of the new proposal will be detailed in the next seven to 10 days. He also said the administration has not given up on many of the road and drainage infrastructure issues included in previous tax proposals. It’s possible that funds for bridge repairs could end up in the final version of this proposal, he said.
Council members contacted for comment said they were still short on details but were more inclined to support public safety than some of Holden’s measures in the past.
“In general, public safety measures that are not confused with infrastructure or economic development certainly deserve some healthy discussion,” said Councilman Joel Boé. “Seems like it may be worthy of letting the public decide if they want to financially support public safety with additional tax money.”
Councilman Ryan Heck said he is “generally always against increases in taxes” but is open to the idea of a revenue-neutral solution. He suggested that if, for example, the Library System — which also has a tax election next year — lowers its taxes, and the city-parish increases taxes for public safety, then there would be no increased tax burden to residents.
“Someone will have to take a hair cut, maybe a lot of people will have to take a hair cut,” Heck said.
Councilman John Delgado said he’d like the city-parish to explore whether it could fund the construction debt with the revenue savings it would incur from running a more efficient prison.
“I don’t know how it will be paid for, but whatever it is, it needs to be looked at,” Delgado said. “This is important, and we can’t keep playing kick the can.”
Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who was in the minority of council members who supported the 2011 bond issue, said she thinks some of the political disagreements between council members and the Mayor’s Office have subsided since the last attempt.
Holden clashed with several council members ahead of the last tax proposal, with many council members criticizing the administration for not providing the tax proposal to them early enough after repeated requests for information.
“It’s a very different dynamic in terms of politics and as well as council composition,” she said. “We all know and agree that there are needs in this community, including public safety as well as other needs. It comes down to what this council believes are the real priorities.”