The East Baton Rouge recreation and park system will ask its governing board for a property tax increase at the end of May, one that won’t require the approval of voters.
BREC already collects one of the highest property taxes in the city-parish, at 14.218 mills, and many of the city’s public officials have decried recent tax increase efforts from other public agencies. Although voters approved BREC’s property tax at 14.463 mills, the tax size has shrunk as property values have increased during reassessments.
Despite the recent political outcry against taxes and despite BREC’s own board voting against allowing them to pursue this same funding avenue in 2012, BREC officials say they need the extra $936,998 million a year that the additional 0.245 of a mill would generate. BREC expects to take in more than $52 million in tax revenue this year.
“Go back 10 years and look at where we were and see that we had an aging park system that desperately needed renovations and improvements and upgrades, and look 10 years later to where we are now,” said BREC spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet. “We got here because the community said, ‘We will give you some extra funding in order to catch up on your construction.’ ”
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight did not return requests for comment on Friday.
Government agencies have a common practice of “rolling back” taxes as property values are reassessed, which keeps tax bills the same but translates into a smaller millage. BREC is hoping to “roll forward” its property tax, which will mean higher tax bills for property owners.
If the BREC Board of Commissioners approves the increase, it will cost owners of a $175,000 home that is subject to homestead exemption an extra $2.45 annually. Michelet said they need the extra money because BREC is in the process of paying off its “Imagine Your Parks” projects, but the agency is still being asked to add new parks and trails as well.
The extra money would go toward improving City-Brooks Community Park’s lakes and adding more trails throughout the parish, in addition to other projects.
In 2012, BREC’s administrators asked to roll forward the property tax, but the proposal did not garner enough votes from the BREC board of commissioners to pass. Many speakers at a public meeting had implored the commissioners to reject the higher tax.
Conservative activist Woody Jenkins, who spoke in opposition of BREC’s proposed roll forward in 2012, said he will again voice his opposition to the proposed tax increase this time around. In 2012, he launched “Operation Stop the Roll Forward,” asking all the various tax collecting agencies to vote against rolling forward their millages and raising people’s taxes.
“The concept we’re concerned about is increasing property taxes without a vote of the people,” he said.
Jenkins said it’s particularly disturbing that unelected boards are making tax decisions, because they are not directly accountable to voters.
“BREC is a very well-funded and large organization that in most respects does a good job,” he said. “But the question is, will the voters have any real way to oversee a decision of this magnitude?”
Jenkins said he is hopeful the Metro Council and School Board, which appoint BREC board members, will also put pressure on their representatives.
Michelet said BREC administrators will need to convince both the board and the public that BREC has followed through on using tax money to build the parks they requested. She also noted the costs of construction and health care for employees have gone up.
Davis Rhorer, BREC commissioner and Downtown Development District executive director, said he plans to support the tax increase and said BREC has been a good steward of its tax revenue. He said it is expensive for BREC to maintain its parks and he is excited about the projects BREC is developing.
“Trails and bicycle paths and that type of thing are not only sweeping the country but the world, and BREC’s mission is to play a leadership role in a lot of those endeavors,” Rhorer said. He was not on the board in 2012.
The BREC commission will have the last word on the roll-forward request; because it is not a new tax or a renewal, the roll forward will not go before the Metro Council or the voters.
Many Metro Council members have slammed other public agencies such as the library for asking for higher taxes.
Voters approved an 11.1-mill property tax for the library system that has since been rolled back to 10.78 mills. The library is asking the Metro Council to authorize a tax renewal proposition for the fall ballot that would again set the rate at 11.1 mills, which would translate into more-expensive tax bills for the public.
Michelet said BREC does not want to land in the same hot water as the library when the BREC tax comes up before voters for renewal in 2016.
“If we don’t roll forward, when we put it on the ballot, it would look like an increase when it’s the original (tax),” Michelet said. She also said the tax is “not a burdensome increase.”
But Metro Council member John Delgado said he opposes the tax increase, though he cannot vote on the roll forward.
“Of course you will hear the chorus of ‘it will only cost the average taxpayer the cost of a cup of coffee,’ but when you add up all the taxpayers over time, it’s millions of dollars,” Delgado said. “BREC is the largest landowner in East Baton Rouge. If they need money, sell some land. Enter into more partnerships with private companies … but stop grabbing for our wallets.”
BREC will hold a public hearing about the tax increase at its monthly meeting at 5:15 p.m. May 28 at BREC’s administrative building at 6201 Florida Boulevard. The board will vote on the roll-forward tax increase after the public hearing.
Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Saturday, April 18, to reflect that a roll forward of BREC’s tax millage would generate $936,998 a year, according to BREC officials.