Metro Council will not allow St. George fire tax on May ballot _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- St.George Fire Commission Building at 14141 Airline Highway.

St. George controversy bled into the Metro Council’s Wednesday meeting as the council voted against sending a proposed tax hike for the St. George Fire Department to voters.

The measure was meant to increase a soon-to-expire 1.25 mill property tax to 3.25 mills. The council was locked in a stalemate after two votes, with six members voting against adding the proposed tax increase to the May ballot, while six voted in favor. When the council is tied, a measure fails.

The Fire Department will come back to the Metro Council and request a fall election for the tax increase, said Fire Chief Gerard Tarleton. He said it would consider cutting the length of the tax to 10 years if that is the ticket to getting the council to pass it.

The St. George fire tax was the second May ballot tax measure of the night to fail, with Metro Council members rejecting it minutes after closing the door on Mayor-President Kip Holden’s $335 million tax plan. Several council members who voted against adding the mayor’s proposed tax plan to the May ballot voted to include the fire department’s tax on the ballot, while others who voted for the mayor’s proposed tax plan voted against putting the fire department’s tax on the ballot.

Despite the St. George fire chief’s insistence that the fire department’s tax was a completely separate issue from the creation of the proposed city of St. George, some council members did not see it that way. Many also said they would have supported a renewal, but not the 2-mills increase.

The tax increase would have been effective for 20 years, meaning any land annexed to Baton Rouge during that time would be subject to the tax even if St. George becomes its own city.

Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said the timeline of the proposed tax was too long, given the possibility that someone would live on land annexed to Baton Rouge but be paying St. George Fire Department taxes for 20 years.

She and a few others tried to amend the ballot item, but the council cannot amend ballot items for elections it is not calling.

Others who voted in favor of adding the tax to the ballot urged their colleagues to look at the firefighters through nonpartisan lenses.

“Just because y’alls name is St. George … Firemen get along, and even when they don’t, they do their job,” said Councilman Trae Welch, who supported adding the tax to the ballots. “And that job is doing nothing more than going (to) help people.”

The Fire Department will not lose money for 2016, though it could lose money for 2017 if the department does not have another millage renewal or increase approved. The timing and possible loss of money was a source of confusion for many council members.

“Voting no is denying the renewal and decreasing his funding when it expires,” warned Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe before council members took the second vote. Loupe voted to add the tax measure to ballots.

Those council members voting against placing the fire department’s tax on the ballot were: Marcelle, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Donna Collins-Lewis, Ryan Heck, John Delgado and Buddy Amoroso. Those voting in favor of putting the tax on the ballot were: Loupe, Welch, Scott Wilson, Joel Boé, Tara Wicker and Ronnie Edwards.

Mayor’s staffers said the Fire Department will still have its full budget in 2016, because property taxes are collected in December 2015, before the millage expires. The St. George Fire Department could then have a tax election this fall or next spring to prevent any lapse in funding.

Tarleton said not giving the renewal or increase would result in a loss of $1.5 million. He said the cut would not result in layoffs, but that the money goes toward capital improvements, and he warned that no new fire stations will be built if the millage is not increased in the future.

He also previously argued that the department had not asked for more taxes in more than a decade, and said it needed the money to pay for new and upgraded fire stations, fire hydrants and also the rising costs of day-to-day duties.

“We knew it was gonna be tough,” said Trey Jackson, president of the St. George Firefighters Association.

The department’s current millage is 14 mills, broken up into five different taxes. The department also collects a $32 annual service fee per each 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.

While the tax measure won’t appear on the May ballot, it is possible that voters in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish could end up voting on a measure to create the new city of St. George. The city-parish registrar of voters is currently examining signatures to put that proposal on the ballot.