On a day on which they rejected a slew of other millage proposals, mostly renewals, to pay for various parish services, St. Bernard Parish voters on Saturday overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to increase a property tax that funds flood protection — a vote that could also affect Orleans and Jefferson parishes, which are part of the same regional flood protection system.
The Lake Borgne Levee District, which covers St. Bernard Parish, is responsible for maintaining the southern section of a system that shields the entire east bank from hurricanes and major storms.
With a parish population half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina, the district’s current 11.1-mill tax isn’t meeting expenses, according to officials. The defeated proposal would have raised the tax to 18.6 mills, a 67 percent increase.
Sixty-one percent of voters rejected the increase.
The vote won’t change flood protection overnight, said Nick Cali, executive director of the levee district, but it will force his agency to make hard decisions about where to cut costs.
“On Monday morning, we’re going to sit down and talk about the next step in looking for money,” he said.
The Lake Borgne Levee District takes in about $3.7 million a year, but it spends about $500,000 more than that, Cali said.
The agency has $5.2 million in reserve, he said, but its expenses will jump to roughly $6 million annually when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hands over to local authorities responsibility for the rest of the area’s $14.5 billion flood protection system.
Bob Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said the anticipated shortfall can’t be made up simply by cutting expenses.
“There will be some things that we just won’t be able to do,” he said. “Until we find more revenue, the key will be to prioritize.”
The tax funds operation and maintenance of 60 miles of levees, 33 floodgates and two navigation floodgates.
Unlike the other levee districts, the Lake Borgne district also runs the parish drainage system, which includes 55 miles of drainage canals and eight pump stations.
While only St. Bernard residents voted Saturday, the issue has implications for the rest of the east bank. Storm surge invading one parish can flow into the others. That’s why the Corps designed the new system as a perimeter defense — a chain of interlocking levees and floodwalls stretching from Kenner to Caernarvon.
The Flood Protection Authority-East was established to oversee operations of the three levee districts that maintain this system. But state law prohibits taxes raised in one district from being used in another.
The levee districts for the more populated parishes have surpluses. But St. Bernard has struggled to meet the demands of the southern end of the system.
On other issues Saturday, St. Bernard voters rejected a long list of millages — nearly all renewals — to pay for public services including fire protection, garbage, libraries, recreation and road maintenance. Parish officials likely will have to ask voters a second time to renew the taxes, which don’t expire until 2017 or later.
A second new millage request, voted down by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, would have put in place a 3-mill tax that would have generated about $917,000 annually for 10 years to pay for lights on streets, roads, highways, alleys and public places. It would have replaced an existing 1.23-mill property tax that is authorized through 2016.