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.

The St. George Fire Department amended a tax proposal Monday in a second attempt to send it to voters after the Metro Council rejected it last week.

St. George Fire Chief Gerard Tarleton will now return to the Metro Council next week to ask for approval to place two measures on the May 2 ballot: a 1.25-mill property tax renewal and a 2-mill property tax increase, both of which would be in place 10 years. The Council last week voted against approving the tax increase proposal in the original form, in which voters would have had the option only to pay a 3.25-mill property tax for 20 years.

The council could choose to approve an election only for the tax renewal or to approve an election for the renewal and the increase. Some council members complained last week about the length of the proposed tax, while others said they would approve an election for a renewal but not an increase.

Still, Tarleton has his fingers crossed that the tax increase will make it onto the ballot. He said he will start trying to persuade the council members this week.

“You can’t hire people with the same amount of money; you can’t build things with the same amount of money,” he said.

The trimming of the time frame for the proposed taxes also will not come without a cost. The Fire Department now has a pared-down list of proposed capital improvements, as the cut from 20 years to 10 years means $10 million less for improvements.

Tarleton nixed plans for relocating the fire station on Seaboard Drive and water system improvements in more than 10 parts of the city.

Property tax bills would stay the same if only the renewal passes. If the increase passes, bills would go up by $35 annually for homeowners with $250,000 homestead-exempt houses, Tarleton said. For a $100,000 house, homeowners would pay an extra $5 a year.

The Fire Department also is under a time crunch. The deadline for the bond commission to receive a certified copy of the council’s approval is Jan. 29, the day after the council is supposed to vote again on the proposed election.

“These are very close deadlines, and if the stars don’t line up like they’re supposed to, there will be a problem,” said Henry Olinde, the Fire Department’s attorney.

The Metro Council also rejected a tax proposal from Mayor-President Kip Holden immediately before deadlocking 6-6 on the Fire Department’s tax proposal, keeping it, for now, from going to voters. Holden’s proposal faced a challenge from a technicality in the Plan of Government that prohibits the city-parish from calling a tax election in the spring, when voter turnout is lower than in the fall, unless it is for an urgent issue.

The same rule does not apply to an election for the Fire Department’s tax proposal because it would be calling and paying for the election, even though getting the measures on the ballot requires Metro Council approval.

If the renewal is not approved and does not go up for election in the next year, the Fire Department could miss out on $1.5 million for capital projects in 2017. But for 2016, the department will have its full budget because property taxes will be collected in December 2015, before the 1.25-mill tax expires.

The St. George Fire Department’s current property tax rate is 14 mills, broken into five different taxes. The department also collects a $32 annual service fee per structure.