Livingston Parish leaders mostly blame a lack of voter awareness for the recent failure of three tax renewals that are headed back to the ballot in May. But a review of the parish’s election results over the past 15 years suggests another factor may be at work — tax fatigue.
Livingston voters are not as supportive of tax renewals as they were 10 years ago. Even propositions that garnered overwhelming support a decade ago struggled to secure modest approval margins in 2014, according to elections data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
With more propositions passed in Livingston in 2004 and 2005 than any other year in the past 15, this could signal trouble for the 10-year renewals that have not yet gone back to the polls.
Parish voters rejected property tax renewals in December for Fire Protection District 10 in Holden and Recreation District 2 in Watson, as well as for the parish health unit in November.
Parish officials wrote off the health unit’s tax failure — with 57 percent voting against — as the result of the proposition’s gross misstatement of the amount of revenue the tax would generate.
The proposition had said the 10-year, 5-mill tax would generate only $763,000 per year, while the Assessor’s Office estimated the tax’s worth at more than three times that amount — $2.3 million annually. The Advocate exposed the multimillion-dollar error the week before the election, and parish officials said they would nullify the vote if the proposition passed.
However, voters’ rejection of the fire and recreation taxes came as more of a shock. Officials for both districts attributed the loss to a lack of voter awareness about the purpose and need for the taxes.
Holden Fire Chief Warren Stewart said the day after the election that he believed voters may have thought the request was for a new tax or an expansion of the fire district, rather than a renewal of the funds used for daily operations.
He said he didn’t think the election results represented how the community actually feels about the fire district’s services. The proposition was defeated by only six votes.
Recreation District 2 Chairman Ken Graves said the same of the recreation tax, which funds the Live Oak Sports Complex.
“The only thing we can come up with is that maybe the voters were uninformed. Maybe we didn’t do a good enough job at getting the word out that it was a renewal and not extra funds,” Graves said.
Both Stewart and Graves said they will focus on informing voters of the need for the taxes before the May 2 election.
Parish President Layton Ricks has suggested also putting the health unit millage back on the May ballot as a renewal, changing only the revenue estimate to the correct $2.3 million figure, despite the health unit’s growing surplus.
But whether voters will renew an established tax — even one widely approved before — is an increasingly uncertain question in Livingston Parish.
Three millage renewals passed in 2014 — for a fire district and a recreation district in Denham Springs and for the parish library system — won considerably less support than 10 years ago.
Fire District 5 and Recreation District 3 won only 66 percent and 53 percent, respectively, of the vote this November, compared to 91 percent and 84 percent a decade ago. And the parish library system had the support of only 68 percent of voters in April, compared to 81 percent in 2005.
Jim Ryan, the parish government’s financial adviser, said in his 20-plus years of working at the state Bond Commission and in private practice, he has never seen as many tax proposals fail at the polls as he has seen in the past two years.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if people are just tired of taxes or what, but I’ve seen a lot of taxes fail that I would’ve thought would pass.”
Political consultant John Couvillon said tax fatigue may indeed be the reason, particularly in areas already harboring a strong anti-tax sentiment.
“Livingston Parish historically has been an anti-tax area, and I think when you put multiple taxes on a ballot, you run the risk of inducing tax fatigue,” Couvillon said. “I think the voters rebelled, even though these were just renewals.”
Denham Springs attorney Eric Pittman, who advises Fire District 5, said having more items on a ballot can cause voters to more closely study each item. That can play to the advantage of a district trying to get a tax renewed.
Pittman also suggested that the traditional wisdom of putting tax propositions on the ballot during low-turnout elections may no longer hold true.
“In my way of thinking, the more informed your voters are and the more likely you are to have a good turnout, the more likely it is that your tax will pass,” Pittman said.
That strategy has worked in the past for parish library bonds, a Council on Aging millage and even, by the slimmest of margins, for a user fee for the parish’s mosquito abatement program.
But higher voter turnouts also may have tanked tax proposals in Livingston, including the Watson-area recreation millage that is headed back to the ballot in May. When the recreation tax passed during the March 9, 2004, presidential primary, only 437 residents voted on the proposition. When the tax renewal failed on Dec. 6, 2014, more than 10 times that number voted — 4,570.
Turnarounds are possible. Tax proposals for both the Council on Aging and the mosquito abatement program failed in April 2003, then passed seven months later when turnout swelled to nearly 30,000.
But putting a proposition back in front of voters doesn’t guarantee success.
While the Council on Aging’s turnaround was followed by a renewal of the tax in April 2013, the mosquito abatement program has not been able to garner similar long-term support
After winning a slim 51 percent majority in favor of a user fee in November 2003, program officials had trouble collecting the fees and chose not to pursue renewal. Instead, they proposed a 3-mill property tax, which voters rejected in November 2012 and again in October 2013. The program will be shuttered in 2015, director Jeanine Tessmer has said.
Other propositions appeared similarly doomed, based on prior results. Killian has rejected a sales tax three times in the past 10 years. Some fire districts will accept a property tax but overwhelmingly have rejected user fees.
Meanwhile, Livingston voters have not defeated a School Board tax proposition in 15 years — a factor officials may find comforting as they seek to renew in May a parishwide 7-mill tax for school building maintenance.
Schools Superintendent John Watson has said the recent failure of other entities’ tax renewals is a concern but noted that parish voters have approved the schools’ maintenance tax every 10 years since the 1950s.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.