East Baton Rouge Parish residents will not vote this fall on whether to approve Mayor-President Kip Holden’s $748 million capital improvements tax package.
The Metro Council on Wednesday night voted, 8-2, against sending the public safety, infrastructure and economic development proposal to voters in the Nov. 19 election.
After the vote, Holden told the media that Baton Rouge will be unable to adequately move forward without the tax plan to fund the critical infrastructure projects.
“It’s a continuation of almost 60 years of neglect of basic infrastructure for Baton Rouge,” Holden said. “The bottom line is that Baton Rouge can’t step forward if we’re stuck in a spot now. We’re neutral now, but I just hope we don’t go into reverse.”
The tax proposal was ultimately killed because of council concerns that it was ill-timed and excessive in scope.
The council also had objections about receiving information at the last minute. Council members received their first detailed staff presentation on the tax and bond plan Wednesday after rejecting it two weeks earlier. Wednesday night was also the first time details such as the total cost to taxpayers over the duration of the bond — more than $1 billion — were made public.
“We need to talk about this for a lot longer than what we’ve had,” Councilman Trae Welch said. “Information is coming out as late as right now.”
Council members Tara Wicker and C. Denise Marcelle supported sending the tax plan to voters.
Council members Welch, Ulysses “Bones” Addison, Ronnie Edwards, Scott Wilson, Donna Collins-Lewis, Mike Walker, Alison Gary and Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois voted to kill the item.
Chandler Loupe and Joel Boé were absent.
Holden needed seven of the 12 council votes to send the tax proposal to voters.
This is Holden’s third attempt at a tax package to address parish capital improvements projects, but the first one that did not make it to the voters.
Two, more-expensive proposals in 2008 and 2009 were rejected by voters.
The most recent proposal was to be divided, for the first time, into three components for voters to choose from: $298 million for public safety, $418 million for infrastructure improvements, and $32 million for economic develop upgrades that amounted to the expansion of the Baton Rouge River Center.
The package in total would have cost taxpayers 2.9 mills of property tax and a three-quarters of a cent sales tax increase. After two years, one-quarter cent of the sales tax would have elapsed.
Wednesday’s vote concluded almost two hours of debate by the council, public comments and a 45-minute presentation from Holden’s administration.
About a dozen parish residents spoke, most of them in favor of sending the item to voters.
Among them were people representing groups including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which expressed support of the tax and bond plan.
Curt Monte, a Baton Rouge firefighter, praised the public safety component of the plan and urged the council to allow voters to make the decision.
“This is a simple vote,” he told the council. “Ninety percent of the time you sit in that seat and are voting for the people you represent. But this vote allows them to vote for themselves.”
Cecil Cavanaugh, Louisiana Tea Party director, called the proposal “the mayor-president and the Metro Council’s bail-out bond issue.”
“I don’t think you’re spending the money that you’re getting wisely,” he said, noting city-parish revenue increases over the years that have outpaced the population growth.
Councilwoman Marcelle said Holden’s decision to divide the proposal into three components for voters to choose from — instead of an “all or nothing” vote — provided more incentive for her to send it to the voters.
“I believe in democracy, and it should be the people’s decision to vote the bond up or down,” she said.
Collins-Lewis said she is not “anti-tax or anti-bond,” but felt the plan would fail for a third time.
Collins-Lewis also said she would prefer that a tax proposal be redeveloped with more input from the council.
“I don’t want this tax to die a third death,” she said. “I do want to see a bond structured in a way that it will pass.”
Gary said she had issues with a lack of transparency in the process, noting that the proposal was not made available to the public.
“People are willing to pay for certain things but they want transparency,” she said. “I don’t even see where the capital improvements plan was on our own city-parish website.”
Several council members said they would rather see the city-parish re-evaluate its priorities and pay for some of the necessary infrastructure projects with money from the existing budget.
But after the meeting Holden said there’s nothing he can do.
“I don’t want them to mislead you by saying there’s money in the budget in order to take care of all these problems,” he said. “My hands are tied because the funding mechanism to take care of these problems will never get the chance to be voted on.”
The council received a 15-page packet with information about the tax package on July 7, after asking for details for more than six months.
Two weeks ago, the council attempted to delete the tax plan from its agenda, eliminating the opportunity for public hearing and debate by voting 9-3 against allowing the tax proposal to be introduced. But Holden was able to put the item back on Wednesday’s agenda.
“The next time this comes up, please get the information to us. We begged ’em and begged ’em and begged ’em” Bourgeois said to the administration. “All this should have been worked out weeks, months ago.”
But asked if he had regrets about his overall handling of the bond issue, Holden said that it was the council members who failed to contact his staff in the past month with their questions.
He also noted that serious infrastructure problems like the need to replace 78 bridges should not be a surprise, since the council was briefed at a February meeting.
“There’s been a lot of information out there,” he said. “It’s like if I tell you six months ago that you’re going to have the same test in six months and you don’t open your book and study it, then I’ve done all I can do,” he said.
Shortly after the tax package failed, the council approved the creation of a “Crime Fighting/Prevention Committee” that will assess the needs of law enforcement in the parish and potentially recommend a tax next spring.
Council members have said that some components of Holden’s public safety plan, like a new Parish Prison and a City Police headquarters, could be included in a tax plan to be developed by the new panel.