Experts: Levees stronger, but still far from optimal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- John Campbell walks along the flood gate as it closes as the Corps conducts an exercise closing the flood gate and testings pumps at the West Closure Complex in Belle Chasse. The flood gate is an upgrade to the pre-Katrina levee protection system.

Voters on the west bank of Jefferson Parish on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a new property tax that will fund critical maintenance work on the federal levees that protect the area from flooding. 

After rejecting a similar tax proposal in 2015, voters who live within the West Jefferson Levee District approved a 10-year, 4.75-mill tax to help maintain and operate the levee system. Residents had rejected a 30-year, 5.5-mill tax three years ago. 

Officials with the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West hoped that this year's more modest proposal would persuade voters to support it. The ballot measure stipulated that the proceeds will go only to operation and maintenance of the levee system. 

The tax is expected to generate about $4.75 million per year for the levee district.

In meetings with community and business groups, proponents argued that the money is necessary to help the authority maintain the $4.2 billion levee system completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about five years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other destructive storms.

After completing the system, however, the Corps handed over its operation and maintenance to the local authority, which said the levees are slowly sinking.

Authority leaders said that without the extra funds to periodically raise the levees, the system would fall out of compliance with federal law, which could have had catastrophic consequences for the quarter of a million people and more than 8,000 businesses located inside the system's protection. Not only could it make their risk of flooding greater, but it could cause their flood insurance rates to go up significantly.

That might have been the case as soon as 2021, the officials warned.

Officials have said that more than $60 million of work needs to be done in the next decade to raise and fortify levees and repair pump stations, but the authority had only $18.8 million of that money without the new tax.

But some public officials, including Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, said parish residents already pay enough in taxes and insurance and that taking care of the levees should be paid for from state funds, such as the money the state gets from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA. 

State officials said no GOMESA or other state funds are available to help reinforce the west bank's levees.

Residents inside the levee system — which does not include Lafitte, Grand Isle or Crown Point — pay a constitutionally authorized 5.03 mills to fund the West Jefferson Levee District. That tax does not require voter approval.

With the new tax, voters will pay 9.78 mills total for flood protection.

The proposal was endorsed by the West Bank Business & Industry Association, the Home Builders Association of New Orleans and the Bureau of Governmental Research.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.