Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration is taking a second crack at passing a new tax to fund a $75 million legal settlement with firefighters over back pay, this time planning to put the measure on the ballot alone rather than tying it to a similar tax for an expansion of the New Orleans Police Department.
To pay for more cops, meanwhile, Landrieu plans on making cuts at other city agencies. He has told all city departments to plan on a 5 percent cut in their budgets, although cuts may not have to go that deep across the board.
Andy Kopplin, the mayor’s outgoing chief administrative officer, told the City Council on Thursday that the goal is to hire 150 new officers by year’s end.
A lack of trust in New Orleans institutions, skepticism that more cops on the street would a…
If the council approves a plan to put the 2.5-mill firefighter tax on the Dec. 10 ballot, it likely will appear alongside a separate measure to renew a Sewerage & Water Board millage that officials say is crucial to maintaining drainage infrastructure.
The council took the first step toward putting both taxes on the ballot Thursday and will make a final decision on whether to move forward with either or both of them at a meeting in September.
Voters in April rejected a combined 7.5-mill property tax hike that would have brought in about $26.6 million annually to help expand the NOPD and pay what the city owes to the firefighters.
Landrieu struck a deal last fall to end a decades-old lawsuit alleging the city owed firefighters $75 million in back pay. While the firefighters had won just about every round in court, they could not force the city to pay.
Negotiations produced a compromise under which city would pay firefighters $15 million up front, with the balance to be paid at $5 million a year over move than a decade. In exchange, firefighters accepted scaled-back pension benefits for new hires.
But the plan was contingent on voters passing the public safety taxes. And about 54 percent of New Orleans voters rejected those new taxes in April.
Now, the mayor is moving forward with the fire tax alone, in hopes that a smaller hike will have a better chance.
"This is very critical to firefighters, particularly retired firefighters who are disabled and really hurting," said Nick Felton, head of the firefighters union.
Felton argued there was public support for passing the fire millage but some uncertainty about the larger tax that would have gone to the NOPD. Breaking the two issues apart might make it "an easier pill to swallow," he said.
Kopplin said he didn't have an opinion on whether voters supported one millage more than another, but he said he thinks a smaller millage would be an easier sell.
"I think the voters said the proposal was too large last time, so we're proposing something smaller while also clearly addressing police protection and NOPD as the No. 1 budget priorities," Kopplin said.
The tax for the firefighters alone would add about $37.50 in tax a year for every $100,000 a property is worth.
It's not clear how much money will be needed to cover salaries for police officers hired this year, but for now, Landrieu has no plans to ask again for a tax hike to fund the NOPD expansion.
While the department has hired 70 recruits this year and plans two more recruit classes, attrition has kept the overall number of cops at roughly 1,170. The plan had been to reach 1,266 officers this year on the way to an ultimate goal of 1,600.
The tax that voters shot down in April would have provided police with an extra $17.7 million annually.
But officials don’t expect the NOPD’s expansion will cost that much, and they expect other revenue categories will grow in the meantime, meaning most areas of city government likely won't have to cut back by the full 5 percent.
Voters also likely will be asked to renew an existing millage that helps pay the day-to-day expenses of the S&WB's drainage department. While monthly water and sewerage bills pay for the those departments, the drainage system is funded entirely by three property taxes.
The one expected to be placed on the ballot this winter is a 4.46-mill tax that brings in $15 million annually and is set to expire at the end of the year. The renewal would extend the tax for the next half-century.
It provides about 28 percent of the drainage department's annual budget, which is used to maintain and operate the pumps, canals and culverts that take water out of the city.
The drainage operation costs about $40.4 million every year in labor, electric power and other operating costs; $8.4 million in capital improvements; and $2.1 million in debt payments.
The drainage system is crucial to keeping the city viable, particularly as officials expect higher levels of rainfall in coming years due to climate change. Last year, the city recorded about 63 inches of rain. There has been 40 inches so far this year, said Cedric Grant, director of the water board.
"This is something as basic to your ability to stay here and live here and be successful," he said.