The Northshore Harbor Center didn’t have a tax proposition on the ballot last month, but when board members met last week, the results of the Nov. 21 election were very much on their minds as they struggled to gauge the mood of voters in fiscally conservative St. Tammany Parish.
The Harbor Center’s millage for operating costs will expire in 2017, and the board has hired political consultant Greg Buisson to help figure out when to try again with the tax renewal that failed in May.
His view, according to the center’s director, Kathy Lowrey, is that the defeat of a Pearl River recreation district tax renewal and the failure of all but one of the nine home rule charter amendments on last month’s ballot are worrisome signs.
Chairman Mark Myers put it succinctly: The fear is winding up on a ballot on a day when voters say “no, no, no” to everything.
That’s what the board believes happened last spring when voters rejected the 3-mill tax renewal by a whopping 61 percent. Only one tax measure survived that election — a millage renewal for Fire District 12. The same part of the parish that votes on the Harbor Center’s taxes faced a controversial property tax for a new recreation district that same day, further inflaming voters, board members said.
The anti-tax fever of last spring was not as evident last month. Four of the seven tax measures on the ballot in various parts of St. Tammany won approval, by wide margins in some cases.
Covington voters said yes to the extension and rededication of a 1-cent sales tax by 59 percent. In Folsom, 66 percent of voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the town’s Police Department. A parcel fee for a lighting district in Slidell’s Military Road area, which failed a year ago, was approved this time around.
But the taxing bodies that were rebuffed face the same dilemma as the Harbor Center: when to ask again.
The Harbor Center, which decided to seek its millage renewal early, has some leeway. Its consultant will be polling voters in the next two weeks to find out why the tax was defeated, Lowrey said. And the board is gearing up for a campaign.
“We have to beat the streets, tell people how we contribute, how we improve the community,” Myers said.
Gravity Drainage District No. 5, which covers parts of the Covington and Mandeville area, will also try to figure out the most opportune time to ask voters again to approve a half-mill property tax that failed last month.
The millage would have generated about $190,000 for design work and small capital projects, according to Rykert Toledano, who will represent the area on the Parish Council beginning next year.
Toledano said he and the current councilman, Marty Gould, think that a significant anti-tax sentiment that played out statewide was responsible for the defeat.
The drainage district has put its tax money to good use, Toledano said, and with the partial rollback of another millage that has been bonded out, the new tax would have been revenue-neutral. The owner of a $200,000 home would have paid $6 a year, he said, describing it as modest.
The district will look for an election with a less crowded ballot where it will be easier to get voters to focus on the district’s proposal, he said. And members will redouble efforts to communicate the importance of the tax to voters, he said.
That’s what Councilman Gene Bellisario credited with the turnaround for Lighting District No. 9. He sent out email blasts and had the help of homeowner associations in getting voters to the polls.
In Pearl River, the board of Recreation District No. 7 will meet Dec. 14 to discuss its next step after the second defeat in a row for the 3.98-mill tax used to operate its 70-acre facility and community center.
Earl Graves, chairman of the district’s board, said it is too late to get on the March ballot. But if the board can get the measure on the April ballot, it might be possible to run the facility through the spring without hiking user fees.
“I’m just frustrated,” Graves said, adding that the recreation district and the children it serves have gotten caught up in a trend that has nothing to do with them.
The goal of the district is “to give kids a place to play where it didn’t cost them through the nose to do it,” he said.
Fire District 7, which serves Talisheek and Hickory, sought a 5.21-mill tax renewal last month that 52 percent of voters rejected. Neither the fire chief nor the board’s chairman could be reached for comment. But the district, which collects 20.2 mills, boasts that it has the second-lowest millage rate of any fire district in St. Tammany.
The Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center, which houses juvenile offenders from St. Tammany and four other parishes, is also wrestling with what to do in the face of voter rejection.
Its board of commissioners has called a special meeting for Wednesday to discuss options.
That might include declaring a state of financial emergency to put the tax renewal on the April ballot, said Chairman David Merlin Duke.
“This is just one of our options, but it is an option the board will have to seriously consider,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.