The president of the regional flood protection authority said he sees no silver lining after voters in St. Bernard Parish on Saturday rejected — for the second time — a proposed tax hike to pay for levee upkeep and storm drainage.
“If the Lake Borgne Levee District were a business, they would be in bankruptcy because they don’t have the funds to meet their expenses,” said Stephen Estopinal, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which oversees the Lake Borgne, Orleans and East Jefferson levee districts.
“Right now, if they had a major problem with their system, they couldn’t fix it because they don’t have the money.”
The vote may not even save St. Bernard taxpayers money in the long run, added Lake Borgne District Executive Director Nick Cali.
The vote could result in “drastic measures” including cuts to “staff and pumping capabilities, which may result in street flooding during rain events,” he said.
Homeowners also could face “significant flood insurance rate increases resulting from the levee district’s inability to comply with federal standards,” he added.
Saturday was the second time St. Bernard voters turned down a proposal to increase the district’s annual tax from 11.1 mills to 18.6 mills. Fifty-eight percent voted “no,” little change from the 61 percent who rejected the measure in December.
The increase would have amounted to about $38.25 per year for a homeowner with property valued at $125,000, the average sales price in the parish. Millage rates in Orleans and Jefferson for the same purpose are just 6.21 and 3.91 mills respectively, but they raise much more money because of the larger tax base.
The St. Bernard vote could affect the entire east bank because the new $14.5 billion hurricane protection system is designed as a perimeter wall wrapped around all three parishes. A break in one section because of poor maintenance could result in flooding in adjoining areas.
But while the system provides unified protection, there is no single funding mechanism. State law prohibits the authority from using tax dollars raised in one parish on work in another. With St. Bernard’s population cut in half since Hurricane Katrina, the Lake Borgne Levee District’s revenue has been unable to keep up with expenses, including $1.4 billion in levee improvements post-Katrina.
Estopinal said the regional board is discussing options on how to proceed, but he declined to discuss them publicly out of fear of alarming residents.
“Some of what we’re talking about may sound very draconian, so we don’t want to put that out there if there are ways to avoid those things,” he said.
“But the bottom line is we are going to find ways to do less while trying to maintain the integrity of the system, which is how we keep people safe.”
Cali said his agency is prioritizing work on segments of the floodwalls, levees and drainage system for future repairs.
“We can’t spend money we don’t have, so we need to have a list of which is absolutely essential for when these things need maintenance and repair,” he said. “Some things we just won’t be able to do.”