New Orleans voters may be asked in April to approve increases in two property taxes to raise more money dedicated to police and to fund a settlement the city reached with firefighters earlier this year on back pay and pension issues. The exact details of the tax proposals are expected by early next year, when the City Council will have to decide whether to move forward with seeking the new taxes and determine how high the proposed rates will be.
Each of the two existing taxes — one for the Police Department and one for the Fire Department — can be raised by up to 5 mills. Raising both to their maximum rate would generate a total of more than $30 million a year, equal to about 5 percent of the city’s $601 million budget for 2016.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has been laying the groundwork for the tax increases since last year, when the Legislature agreed to allow voters to decide on an amendment to the state constitution that would allow for the increases. That amendment passed both statewide and in Orleans Parish.
An increase to the Fire Department tax has been part of most of the discussions this year about how to pay for the city’s $75 million settlement with the firefighters.
While raising the Police Department tax has not been the subject of major public discussion in recent months, administration officials suggested a proposal could be put forward soon.
“Public safety is our top priority,” Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey said in an email when asked about plans to raise the police tax. “The mayor has long stated that additional funds are needed to hire more police to reduce crime and response times, as well as paying our firefighters what they are owed. We are working on what that will entail and will have additional details in the coming weeks.”
The new taxes, along with a bond issue that could provide up to $100 million for streets, are expected to be on the agenda at the City Council’s Jan. 7 meeting.
The state constitutional amendment approved in 2014 doubled the 5-mill cap on each of the two existing millages. However, the city still needs to go back to the voters of New Orleans — 60 percent of whom approved raising the cap — for permission to actually raise the rates.
Officials in the Landrieu administration have previously said they plan to ask voters to approve a 2.5-mill increase in the fire tax in April. That money would cover the $5 million a year the city has agreed to pay to settle a $75 million suit over back pay brought by firefighters decades ago, with any additional money going toward the city’s payments to the Fire Department’s financially ailing pension system.
The details of the police tax increase are still being worked out, and it is not clear how much of an increase the administration will seek.
The city has been struggling to add hundreds of officers to the Police Department, and the extra money could be used to help pay for them. The challenges of recruiting and retaining officers for the depleted force led the city to approve higher pay for the officers this year and in next year’s budget.
Council President Jason Williams said he is talking with other members of the council and constituents about the police tax.
“There are a lot of conversations being had about it,” he said. “I’ve had them with my colleagues. More importantly, what I’m doing is having these conversations with the people of New Orleans to figure out where they are and what they can stomach in terms of this.”
As of now, Williams said, there is no specific plan in place.
Matters are complicated by the fact that police recruitment isn’t purely a matter of dollars and cents, but of attracting good applicants, getting them through the hiring process and then training them and getting them onto the streets.
“We’ve got to be good stewards and really lay out a plan for how it’s going to be spent,” Williams said. “If we’re asking for that millage, I think people need to know what we’re getting, how many police officers we can get.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.