ELMWOOD — Jefferson Parish residents will have to wait until next week to learn the next step for two property tax millages defeated in Saturday’s election, but that didn’t stop parish officials from assigning blame on Thursday.
The Parish Council held what Council Chairman Chris Roberts called an “informational session” to discuss the defeat of the water and sewerage millages by voters, and to plot out the parish’s next move on the measures.
Parish President John Young is asking the council to call for an emergency election in October to place the 5-mill taxes back on the ballot, or the parish could face the possibility of losing up to $70 million in tax revenue, loans and grants. The council must make a decision on the election by its May 15 meeting so that officials can draft the propositions and petition the Louisiana Bond Commission for permission to place them on the ballot.
Thursday’s meeting featured several rounds of verbal sparring between the administration and the council about who was to blame for the propositions’ failure. Council members accused the administration of failing to be aggressive in conveying the importance of the millage to voters, and providing incorrect information on the size of the taxes. Young acknowledged that his administration could have done some things differently, but said the millages were defeated mainly because they appeared on the same ballot as the wildly unpopular renewal of the Crescent City Connection tolls.
“It’s hard to deny the fact that the anti-toll fervor played a role,” Young said. He noted that when the parish initially prepared for the tax vote, the tolls weren’t on the ballot and the renewal was seen as fairly routine. “This (renewal) is not unusual. Except for one thing — it was not approved by the voters.”
However, council members repeatedly chided Young for failing to explain to voters exactly what they would lose if the millages didn’t pass, and for not being more aggressive in getting the parish’s message out. Although the parish did send out letters, news releases, mailers and videos, Roberts said, employees didn’t meet with civic organizations or business leaders to discuss the roughly two dozen projects that would suffer without the tax revenue. Councilman Mark Spears noted that a long-discussed project in his district is now on the chopping block, and he’s certain residents would have voted differently if they had known about that possibility.
“If they knew these projects would have been affected, there would have been a different outcome out there in Waggaman,” Spears said.
Without the tax revenue, the water and sewerage departments would see sizable decreases in their budgets that not only would affect operations and parish-funded capital projects, but also would endanger state loans and grants, said Kazem Alikhani, the public works director. He said both departments might be able to make it through 2013 without the revenue, but things would get dicey after that point.
“That is what is in danger right now … This year I think sewage would be OK, but we’re going to hit a cliff after that,” Alikhani said. “If the millage goes away you’re going to have to eliminate most of the capital improvement.”
Roberts provided the most-pointed criticisms of the administration, questioning whether officials have a mechanism in place to keep track of upcoming millages, and wondering why more attention wasn’t paid to the possible impact of the toll vote. Roberts complained that the process has been plagued by confusion, misinformation and mistakes.
Young said that the toll vote was a “unique” variable, and noted that the parish followed the same procedure for renewals that has been followed multiple times in the past. However, Roberts wasn’t willing to concede the power of the toll vote, noting that Terrytown voters approved a fire millage despite voting down the tolls because the Fire Department was more aggressive in its campaigning.
“My thoughts would be that you double over your efforts … If anybody had an expectation that the toll vote was going to influence this in any way, a bell should have gone off,” Roberts said. “I think at some point you have to question what our priorities are.”
Sheriff Newell Normand and Assessor Thomas Capella told the council that if voters approve the taxes in October, it is possible to get bills to residents in enough time that late fees are avoided. Capella also noted that if the council reduced the millages listed in the proposition, the measure could be placed on the October ballot without an emergency election.
If the parish sticks with the current proposition language, voters would consider approving 5-mill taxes for both water and sewerage for the next ten years. However, because of past rollbacks, the parish currently only assesses 3.54 mills for water and 3.58 mills for sewerage.
Politicians have argued for the past week about whether Saturday’s election represented a tax renewal or tax increase. Capella’s office even sent out a mailer labeling the millages increases, while Young’s office repeatedly fought that claim.
Based on Thursday’s discussion and parish records, the election would have allowed 5 mills to be levied, which would be a tax increase. Although the council has the power to reduce that rate, that has never happened in Jefferson Parish’s history. In the past, the parish enjoyed a spike in property tax income after millage approvals until quadrennial reassessments spurred property tax rollbacks. The next reassessment is set for 2016.
On Thursday, former parish Finance Director Edward LaBruyere blamed Capella for the millage’s failure and not the tolls. LaBruyere, who served under former Parish President M. Daniel Hogan, said residents panicked because of Capella’s letter.
“That’s like yelling fire in a crowded theater … We in the parish always look for an excuse not to pay for something and this was their excuse,” he said. “We didn’t have screw ups like this in the old days.”