The Downtown Development District is twice as large as it used to be before the Legislature changed its boundaries in 2012, but it’s been operating off of the same tax base that it had since before the changes.
That could all change, as residents included in the expansion will be asked in October to weigh in on the 10 mill property tax levied to those in the special taxing district.
Before 2012, the Downtown Development District was about 1.15 square miles and included 1,456 registered voters. Today, by an act of the Legislature, downtown Baton Rouge stretches south to the proposed Water Campus site, north to Choctaw Drive and east to 14th street. It’s grown to 2.2 square miles and includes 2,132 registered voters.
The agency is expected to generate an additional $87,000 in property taxes a year from the properties included in the expanded zone. It currently collects about $500,000 a year in property taxes. The operations budget is also supplemented by $142,500 from the city-parish.
While the boundaries were changed a few years ago, the upcoming tax election has provided some property owners their first notice of the new tax they could be subject to paying.
“It came to us as a surprise recently,” said Robert Yarborough, CEO of Manda Fine Meats on Sorrel Avenue, one of the largest property tax payers in the recently annexed area. “The thought that we’re going to get absolutely zero benefit from added taxes doesn’t make sense to us and it doesn’t seem fair.”
Yarborough said he’s frustrated that he didn’t know about the new taxing district until this year and wasn’t able to weigh in on the issue earlier. He said his business will get no benefit from the perception of being considered a downtown business.
If approved, the five-year tax won’t be applied to those in the expanded taxing district until 2017.
“This gives us the opportunity for additional types of redevelopment that dovetail well with what we have going on now,” Downtown Development District director Davis Rhorer said. “It strengthens our opportunity to add more residential in the inner city and will help us work in tandem with the other redevelopment groups.”
The expansion connects downtown to both Mid City and the Water Campus, which are areas that are active with redevelopment plans and projects.
Winston Riddick, who owns several acres of vacant land that were annexed, said he’s supportive of the new tax and is hopeful that areas east of the interstate will enjoy the same redevelopment benefits that have happened over the past few years in the heart of downtown.
“It increases my taxes, but not astronomically,” he said, adding that he’ll likely pay about $500 a year extra. “It gives the neighborhood a platform that it does not have in the present time to express the concerns and needs in the area.”
It’s undeniable the transformation that has occurred in downtown, Riddick said, with credit going to both the Downtown Development District and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
“All those projects make the city more livable and attractive for tourists,” he said. “I’m hoping they can replicate what they’ve done there on the east side.”
But Riddick agreed with other critics that residents of the expanded downtown development district were not well-informed ahead of time about their eventual increased tax burden as a result of the changed boundaries for the taxing district.
Coleman Brown, a member of the Mid City Merchants group, said many businesses and property owners in that group who are now under the downtown umbrella say they are only now learning about their inclusion in the tax district and have yet to see concrete plans about how their tax dollars will be spent.
He said he would have preferred a separate election to ask those residents if they wanted to be in the taxing district.
“My biggest complaint is that this was billed as a tax renewal when it’s really a new tax for these people,” Brown said.
The Downtown Development District has scheduled a series of neighborhood meetings ahead of the Oct. 24 election to explain the tax.
The tax election will be for the entire area within the new boundary — meaning that voters in the expanded taxing district could have an impact on what is typically an easy victory for the Downtown Development District.
In 2010, the most recent election, the tax passed with 77 percent of the vote. In 2000, the tax passed with 80 percent of the vote.