On Dec. 6, St. Bernard Parish residents will decide whether to increase their property tax for flood protection, and it’s a vote that has broader implications for New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
That’s because the metro area’s storm protection is only as strong as its weakest link, and the money from the St. Bernard tax is needed to maintain the southern section of a system that shields the entire east bank.
The Lake Borgne Levee District, which covers St. Bernard Parish, is responsible for maintaining this part of the system. With the parish’s population cut in half since Hurricane Katrina, the current tax rate of 11.1 mills has fallen short of meeting the district’s expenses, records show. Voters will decide whether to raise it to 18.6 mills, a 67 percent increase.
If approved, the owner of a $100,000 home with a homestead exemption would have to pay $18.75 more a year. The owners of a house worth $175,000 would see their bill jump by $75.
The median sale price of a home in St. Bernard Parish in August was $141,000, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors.
The higher tax is needed to operate and maintain 60 miles of levees, 33 floodgates and two navigation floodgates as part of the area’s hurricane protection system. Unlike the other local levee districts that have separate agencies to manage drainage systems, the Lake Borgne district also must run the parish drainage system, which includes 55 miles of drainage canals and eight pump stations.
Nick Cali, executive director of the levee district, said his office annually spends about $500,000 more than the $3.7 million it takes in from the millage and other sources. He has $5.2 million still in reserve, but he said the Lake Borgne district’s expenses will jump to roughly $6 million annually when the Army Corps of Engineers turns the rest of the new $14.5 billion storm protection system over to the state in the next few years.
“The math is pretty simple: We’re going to run dry in a few years if we can’t fix this,” Cali said. “We’re asking the average property owner to pay about $4 a month more than they are paying now. I think anyone who lives in the parish knows how important this issue is.”
The issue also is important for the rest of the east bank.
Because New Orleans, St. Bernard and East Jefferson sit on the same sinking delta, storm surge invading any parish can flow into the others. That’s why the Corps designed the new system as a multiple-parish perimeter defense — a chain of interlocking levees and floodwalls stretching from Kenner to Caernarvon.
But that one-for-all protection system does not have an all-for-one funding stream.
While the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East was established specifically to oversee the operations of the three levee districts maintaining the interdependent system, state law prohibits taxes raised in one district from being used in another.
In short order, the districts covering the more populous parishes of Orleans and Jefferson registered surpluses while St. Bernard, crippled by Katrina, began struggling to meet the demands of the southern end of the protection system.
The Flood Protection Authority said the New Orleans levee district, with a property tax of 6.21 mills, collects about $16.3 million a year. East Jefferson’s 3.91 mills bring in about $8.8 million.
St. Bernard’s higher millage of 11.1 garners just $3.4 million because of its much smaller population and tax base.
Expenses soon will be jumping dramatically for all three districts. Ownership of the system will come with a $34 million annual bill — $14 million for operation and maintenance and $20 million a year for the next 30 years as part of the state’s share of the cost for the whole project.
That figure does not include $40 million to $50 million in “levee lifts” and $300 million for levee armoring expected to be required every 10 years to keep the steadily subsiding areas qualified for federally subsidized flood insurance. The Corps is going to pay for the first armoring process, expected to be completed in the next year or two.
Bob Turner, regional director of the Flood Protection Authority, said the Lake Borgne district’s current staffing of 34, while “adequate to do the job,” is below the ideal number for operating and maintaining its storm-surge protection and drainage responsibilities.
“The whole idea of this increase is ... to be proactive so we don’t turn a problem into an emergency,” he said.
If the millage doesn’t pass and the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District can’t pay its bills, Turner said, “no one knows” where the money will come from to ensure the integrity of the southern end of the protection system.