Westwego officials are counting on residents to OK tax hikes Saturday to help pay for water and sewer service and fire protection.
Residents will find three new 10-year property tax propositions totaling 10 mills on the ballot, with 6 mills dedicated to funding equipment, maintenance and operations for the Westwego Fire Department and 2 mills each for the water and sewer departments.
If they don’t pass, the city will have to take a $600,000 bite out of the budget it passed in January, which anticipated the millages would be approved by voters.
“The bottom line is all of these are important to the city,” Mayor John Shaddinger said. “People want these essential services, and we want to continue to be able to provide them for them.”
Shaddinger wants more city departments to be funded strictly by dedicated taxes rather than with money from the city’s general fund. At present, only EMS service and street lighting maintenance come close to being fully funded that way.
In recent years, the city has ended up with only about $300,000 in reserve each year, a relatively thin margin to deal with emergencies.
The Fire Department, which has a budget of about $950,000, gets about $260,000 a year from an existing 4.28-mill tax, with the rest coming from the general fund.
The existing millage “is substantially less than what it costs” to run the department, Shaddinger said.
The 6-mill proposition on the ballot would generate about $360,000 per year; half would be dedicated to new equipment and the other half to salaries and day-to-day operations.
Shaddinger said decisions on what new equipment to buy will be up to the Fire Department, but he noted that the city’s newest pump truck is eight years old, while some of the other equipment was purchased three decades ago.
“This would allow us to earmark roughly another $180,000 a year for new equipment,” he said. “It’s just something we believe at the end of the day that the public wants.”
Several years ago, Westwego’s fire rating fell from a Class 2 to a Class 4, though the city was able to get it back up to a Class 3.
A lower fire rating can result in higher premiums for fire insurance for residents and businesses.
Shaddinger said the city’s rating should improve further with better equipment, as well as a $4.1 million new fire and Emergency Medical Services station, funded primarily by the state and slated to be completed by the end of next year.
The water and sewer millages would generate an estimated $120,000 each for salaries, maintenance and operations at the two departments. In part, the extra dollars would help the city maintain state-funded investments.
Westwego is gearing up to perform $5 million in improvements to its water plant, which has had frequent breakdowns and malfunctions over the years. No major renovations are underway at the sewer plant, but the city is paying off a $1 million low-interest loan that it took out in 2009 to make needed improvements.
“We are sending a clear message to our residents … that we are prepared to do what is necessary to provide these services,” Shaddinger said.
Overall, the city collects just under 24 mills in property taxes, which bring in $1.4 million a year. The breakdown is 3.45 mills for general city maintenance and operations, 2.56 mills for street lighting and maintenance, 2.56 mills for park lighting and maintenance, 4.28 mills for fire protection, 4.28 mills for police protection and 6.8 mills for EMS.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.