The BREC Board of Commissioners on Thursday effectively approved a property tax hike, an increase that won’t need a blessing from the voters.
The increase is a “roll forward” of one of the parish park commission’s existing taxes, and it is expected to bring in $936,998 more a year for the agency. Tax bills will go up by a few dollars depending on the assessed value of the property.
BREC Commission Vice Chairman Verge Ausberry Jr. and Treasurer Carlos Sam joined Larry Selders, Lloyd Benson II, Davis Rhorer and Evelyn Ware-Jackson in voting for the property tax roll forward. Board Chairman Kenneth Riche Jr. and John Taylor voted “no.” Laurie Marien was not at the meeting.
As property values rise in a given taxing area, property tax rates are automatically rolled back so the revenue generated remains the same. Governing bodies, however, are allowed to roll forward, or increase, the property tax millage to the original level that voters had approved, thus reaping higher revenues.
BREC officials have said the extra money is necessary for maintaining the organization’s more than 180 parks. BREC leaders said it’s been difficult to add new features the public requests while repaying the bonds first used to improve the park system.
Nine residents, many of whom had close ties to BREC, spoke in a public hearing Thursday in favor of rolling forward the tax. Only one person spoke against the move.
“This is huge for us,” BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said after the meeting. “This is saying that people want to continue to support us.”
Proposed property tax increases for Baton Rouge facilities have proved unpopular in recent months. The Metro Council voted against a joint sales and property tax increase in January for public safety and mental health additions to the city, and the Metro Council discussed earlier this week shaving a dedicated tax for the city-parish library system. But the Metro Council has no control over BREC’s property taxes.
A roll forward for BREC also has been controversial in the past. Commissioners rejected the idea when the measure came before them in 2012. McKnight said the public awareness of everything BREC is doing across the parish may have played a role in the commission’s decision to approve the property tax this time.
Voters approved BREC’s property tax at 14.463 mills years ago, and the BREC Board of Commissioners’ action will raise the property tax back to that level. It had since been dropped, or rolled back, to 14.218 mills to keep in line with rising property values in the parish.
Baton Rouge residents with $150,000 homes that qualify for homestead exemption currently pay $106.64 a year in BREC property taxes. Their bills will increase to $108.47.
Residents with $200,000 homes that take homestead exemption currently pay $177.73 a year in BREC property taxes. Their bills will grow to $180.79.
People who own $250,000 homes with homestead exemption pay $248.82 a year in property taxes, and their bills will increase to $253.10.
The extra money will go toward adding some new amenities, like trails and sports fields, McKnight said. During the public hearing, residents said BREC parks are one of the best attractions Baton Rouge has to offer.
“Most of the fun activities that I participate in involve BREC,” said Janella Rachal, who said she plays tennis, flies kites and attends Louisiana Bonsai Society meetings at BREC parks. “From the perspective of a senior … wouldn’t it be a shame, now that we reached this point, that the parks that we imagined may not be here for us?”
Knock Knock Children’s Museum Vice Chairwoman Aza Bowlin and Project Director Melissa Bell both said the park system was one of the amenities that lured them when they considered relocating to Baton Rouge.
Another common discussion point of the evening was a Gallup study released Thursday that showed Baton Rouge had the highest obesity rate among 100 of the nation’s most populous metropolitan areas. A few speakers said BREC parks are one of the few places people can go for exercise.
Cecil Cavanaugh, who spoke on behalf of the conservative Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge, warned the commissioners that the public is overtaxed. He said the commission needed to consider the average taxpayer.
“If we keep raising (taxes), we’re gonna start voting against some of these renewals … and when that happens, you’re gonna take a big hit, rather than a little hit,” Cavanaugh said after one of the ordinances to roll forward the millage passed.
The BREC commissioners rarely discuss the measures they vote on during their public meetings. Taylor, one of the two commissioners who voted against the roll forward, said after the vote that he and other residents of Zachary are feeling the strain of high property taxes.
“I totally support BREC,” Taylor said, “but ladies and gentlemen, whether we roll forward, we have new money coming in every year.”
BREC’s 2015 budget shows the agency anticipates taking in more than $52 million in property taxes this year. BREC’s operating budget for the year is about $69 million spread among operating expenses, capital improvements and repaying bonds.
Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.