The New Orleans City Council will let voters decide whether to approve $26.6 million a year in new taxes to fund an expanded New Orleans Police Department and to pay off a legal settlement with firefighters.
The council voted 7-0 Thursday to put the tax hike on the April 9 ballot. If voters approve the measure, property taxes would increase by 7.5 mills for 12 years starting in 2017.
The increase, which would not be subject to the homestead exemption, would cost the owner of a house assessed at $150,000 an extra $112.50 a year. The owner of a house assessed at $450,000 would pay $337.50 more.
The ballot measure must still be approved by the State Bond Commission in February before it can go on the April 9 ballot.
In approving the measure proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, council members took a relatively reserved stance, saying they were putting the issue to the voters but feared that concerns about taxes and city government might cause its defeat.
However, administration officials and several council members said the new taxes are the only way to cover the city’s costs for firefighters and to beef up the Police Department, which they argued is the only way to cut response times to crimes and improve safety in the city.
“You look at Jefferson Parish and you look at St. Tammany Parish, and they don’t balk about spending their money on what’s important to them,” council President Jason Williams said.
If approved, the NOPD would get an additional 5 mills, or about $17.73 million a year. The money would largely go to pay for new recruits as the department tries to expand from 1,163 officers to the 1,600 that officials have set as their goal. To do that, the NOPD would have to train 185 officers a year through 2020, with the expectation that about half of those would replace existing officers who leave during that time. That would represent a large increase for a department that added only 31 officers last year, the first time it had grown since a hiring freeze was imposed in 2010.
The plan also includes money for advertising and for additional training and recruiting staff.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell questioned the administration about the 2010 hiring freeze, which she said former Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas had warned would lead to a crisis, and about whether the city’s goal is truly the right size for the department.
Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the freeze was the only choice available.
“The bigger crisis would have been the bankruptcy of the city of New Orleans,” Kopplin said.
The other 2.5 mills, which would bring in about $8.87 million a year, would go to the Fire Department. Technically, that money would be used to pay part of the city’s yearly contribution to the firefighters’ retirement system. But in doing so, it would free up existing funds to pay off a $75 million settlement between the firefighters union and the city over a decades-old lawsuit involving back pay.
That arrangement is designed to ensure that the money from the tax stays within constitutional requirements that it be spent directly on public safety services, such as pay and benefits for firefighters.
Voters in New Orleans and statewide set the stage for the tax increase in 2014, when they approved a constitutional amendment raising the cap on city millages dedicated to police and fire protection from 5 mills each to 10 mills each. However, the Landrieu administration, which was embroiled in heated fights with the firefighters over the back-pay dispute for much of last year, only recently moved toward putting the measure on the ballot.
Councilman Jared Brossett voiced concern that residents may be weary of being asked to fork over more money. He also suggested the NOPD should be doing more to prevent crimes rather than simply putting more officers on the street to react to them.
Councilwoman Stacy Head took a similar tack, saying the millage should be paired with efforts to extract taxes from some properties owned by nonprofits and to change the pension systems for city employees. Police, in particular, could be ripe for pension changes because they just received a 15 percent pay increase that Head said makes their pension benefits more expensive and potentially less necessary.
Administration officials warned the council that there are few palatable options for finding more funding if the tax does not pass.
“The only option we would have ... if the millage doesn’t pass is to cut aggressively somewhere else,” Landrieu aide Ryan Berni said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.