Before May 2, board members of St. Tammany Recreation District No. 7 had big plans to beef up their park north of Pearl River. They were going to build tennis courts and new baseball, football and soccer fields.
Now they are contemplating a much murkier future, one without the 3.98-mill property tax they have been collecting but that voters shot down.
The tax would have provided not only the money they had hoped to use for improvements but also the operating revenue for the park and a recreation center in Hickory.
“We were shocked” by the defeat of the 10-year renewal, said Bryan Frierson, who chairs the recreation district’s board. Its facilities are heavily used by children in the district, which covers much of St. Tammany’s 6th Ward and runs north of Pearl River to Talisheek. It serves about 1,000 children, according to director Roy Yates, and hosts adult softball.
The tax generates about $140,000 a year; the district also gets a small amount of money from a cell tower on its land.
“We may have been a little complacent,’’ Frierson said, blaming himself for not campaigning more vigorously for http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/elections/12221730-171/st-tammany-voters-to-decide//">the renewal, which lost by 30 votes in an election where the turnout was a dismal 4.1 percent. In the days after the election, many people told him they weren’t even aware the tax was on the ballot.
What Frierson had not anticipated was the surge in anti-tax sentiment that saw four of five propositions before St. Tammany voters go down in flames — an attitude he believes was stoked by opposition to two new millages that another recreation district was seeking.
Recreation District No. 16, which covers Wards 8 and 9, excluding the city of Slidell and the Oak Harbor/Eden Isles area, was going before voters with an ambitious plan to build a large new park in eastern St. Tammany comparable to Pelican Park in the Mandeville area. Voters trounced the taxes the district was seeking to build and operate Camellia Park on Airport Road near the Belair subdivision.
Frierson thinks an anti-tax message hurt his district, even though it was aimed at voters in a different part of the parish.
In the weeks leading up to the election, signs were springing up in eastern St. Tammany neighborhoods, some of which simply exhorted voters to say no to taxes.
Fliers circulating in opposition to the Recreation 16 taxes also took shots at a millage renewal for the North Shore Harbor Center, which was before voters in Slidell and Pearl River.
Voters did say no. The only measure that passed May 2 in St. Tammany was the renewal of a 5-mill, 20-year tax for Fire District 12.
As for the defeats, District 16 took the biggest hit. Proposition No. 1, a 4.75-mill tax to pay for a $14 million bond issue to build Camellia Park, failed with 69 percent voting no. Seventy percent of voters rejected Proposition No. 2, a 4.15-mill tax to generate $800,000 a year to operate the park.
The District 7 renewal was shot down by 58 percent of the voters. And the 3-mill renewal sought by the Harbor Center was opposed by 61 percent.
Sharon Hewitt, chairwoman of Recreation District No. 16, said it’s not unusual for a park tax to fail on its first attempt. A renewal is easier to get passed, since voters are casting ballots for something that already exists rather than a vision.
She characterized the opposition as being a rejection of taxes in general and said she didn’t hear much criticism of the actual park plans.
Nevertheless, Hewitt said that if District 16 does go back to voters, it will be with a different proposal. Trying the same thing and expecting a different result would not be smart, she said.
“We did our job. We put together a proposal that was well thought out, and we got the feedback we were looking for,’’ she said.
The board will meet later this month to discuss what to do next, which could involve looking for ways to reduce the tax burden or changing the district’s boundaries. They’ll do a precinct-by-precinct analysis to see where there was support and where there was resistance. But members won’t be in a rush, Hewitt said.
The North Shore Harbor Center likewise has some breathing room. Its 3-mill property tax, which generates $1.6 million a year, doesn’t expire until the end of 2017. Director Kathy Lowrey said the center already has events booked for 2023 and was seeking an early renewal so it could make financial plans eight years out.
“We are obviously disappointed in the outcome of the election,’’ she said in an email, “but we will remain focused on our role and mission within our community.’’
The center’s original millage was adopted in 2007, and Lowrey said that 10 years of experience, as well as surveys that the center has conducted, show that more than 80 percent of area residents have a favorable impression of the Harbor Center and have attended events there.
She pointed to the low turnout in the May 2 election as a factor in the defeat of the renewal. “Less than 5 percent of the voters in the district cast ballots against the renewal of our millage. However, voter turnout for the election was very low, and this was enough to swing the election against the Harbor Center,’’ she said.
No decisions have been made yet about when the center will try again, she said.
But for Recreation District No. 7, the clock is ticking. Its millage expires at the end of this year, and Frierson said the board already has talked to parish officials about putting the measure on the Oct. 24 ballot.
Frierson said he is prepared for possible defeat, looking at what programs can be cut and what money, put aside for future projects, can be used to keep the facilities up and running.
But the board also is planning to work hard for a victory, getting the word out and drumming up support.
If the tax expires, the district would have to seek a new tax, which Frierson sees as a hard sell with voters.
“That’s almost a positive no,’’ he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.