A lack of trust in New Orleans institutions, skepticism that more cops on the street would actually reduce crime and fatigue over taxes may have doomed Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposal to hike the millage for police and firefighters.
With 53.5 percent of voters having cast ballots Saturday against the tax increase, which would have brought in $26.6 million a year dedicated to the police and fire departments, administration and public safety officials said Monday they’re going back to the drawing board.
That could mean all but halting a planned expansion of the New Orleans Police Department and making cuts throughout the city budget to find money for a settlement with the firefighters, unless other sources of revenue are found or a future attempt at passing a tax increase succeeds.
The general consensus among political observers was that voters rejected the proposal largely because of frustrations with city government, “tax fatigue” and a lack of faith that the Landrieu administration would follow through on its pledges on how the extra money would be spent.
Those concerns, as well as general skepticism that more police would mean a safer city, appear to have been particularly acute among black voters.
Silas Lee, a pollster and sociology professor at Xavier University, said a survey he conducted last week showed 50 percent of residents opposing the millage and 40 percent in support.
Focus groups he conducted on another issue that also included questions about the millage proposal delved deeper and found residents worried about higher taxes and wanting to hear more comprehensive solutions to the crime problem, he said.
“The millage increase was going to push a lot of financially stressed families a little closer to the edge,” Lee said.
“They said it’s not just about having more cops; they would like to have some creative programs designed. It’s not just cops. You have to address the other variables impacting New Orleans and impacting the quality of life,” he added.
An analysis of the precinct results by University of New Orleans Survey Research Center Director Ed Chervenak found that about 38 percent of black voters supported the tax. About 50 percent of white voters were in favor, according to his analysis.
That differential, he suggested, may be a reflection of dissatisfaction and distrust in city services, something that a poll released last week by the Survey Research Center found was on the rise.
Indeed, the results seemed to suggest that areas that often have complained they are poorly served by the NOPD were among those most opposed to the new tax.
The department’s 3rd District, which covers the lakefront area, Gentilly and the neighborhoods around City Park, registered the highest opposition to the increase, with 1,038 more no votes cast than yes.
The next largest margins were in the 7th District, which covers most of New Orleans East, and the 5th District, which covers the 9th Ward on both sides of the Industrial Canal.
Those three districts saw the worst response times from police last year. At the same time, voters in the 8th District (the French Quarter and Central Business District) and in Uptown neighborhoods in the 2nd District — where response times were significantly better — largely supported the increase.
A $120 million bond issue that will largely go toward fixing streets and will not require new taxes passed largely because it did significantly better in white areas of the city, Chervenak said. Black voters opposed that measure at the same rate as the tax increase, but white support was about 12 percentage points higher, he said.
The timing of the election also proved to be bad for a new tax. New state sales taxes aimed at closing a massive deficit this year kicked in on April 1.
“People were hammered pretty hard,” firefighters union President Nick Felton said.
The failure of the millage leaves both the police and fire departments in limbo as officials figure out how to move forward.
“At this time, we are regrouping and assessing what this means for the city’s finances beginning in 2017,” Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey said. “We’ll be reaching out to the City Council and the New Orleans delegation in the Legislature to discuss how to move forward. We will have more details in the coming weeks and months.”
The proposed 7.5-mill increase would have included 5 mills for the Police Department, amounting to $17.7 million a year, and 2.5 mills for the Fire Department, yielding $8.9 million a year.
Under a deal the Landrieu administration reached with the firefighters union last year, it still has to pay out $75 million to firefighters in a court judgment over back pay and properly fund the firefighters’ pension system, despite the millage’s defeat.
The millage would have let the city pay off the judgment in 12 years and help offset the costs of the pension payments. While last year’s agreement allowed for a longer repayment period if the millage failed, the money still has to come from somewhere.
Felton said he plans to look at alternative revenue-raising plans. That could mean putting the firefighters’ portion of the millage back on the ballot on its own in a future election. Felton said polls conducted by the firefighters union showed support of at least 70 percent for a tax increase to pay their settlement.
It also could mean other approaches at finding new revenue, though Felton said he would have to talk to the administration about those plans.
Police officials said the failure of the millage all but ends plans to expand the department, now at about 1,163 officers, to 1,600 officers by 2020, a major point the administration used as it tried to sell the increase.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said Monday that while the department would still attempt to train 150 new officers this year, which would allow it to grow to about 1,266 officers by 2017, future plans would have to be put on hold until a way to pay for the extra cops is found.
“We’re back to the drawing board to decide how we’re going to grow our department,” Harrison said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson. Staff reporter Matt Sledge contributed to this report.