After St. Bernard Parish voters on Saturday rejected a full slate of property tax millages that pay for a variety of public services, local officials were left scratching their heads as millions of dollars in tax revenue now hang in limbo.
In hindsight, they say, they could have done a better job of raising public awareness about the long list of millage renewals on the ballot — and the gaping holes that could result in the parish’s budget if they are not renewed. But some officials, including Parish President David Peralta, are optimistic about getting another chance to put the millage renewals in front of voters before some are set to expire at the end of 2016.
Voters turned down almost $10 million a year in millages — nearly all renewals — for public services including fire protection, garbage, libraries, recreation, roads and levee maintenance.
“I don’t think we have a choice. I think it has to go back on the ballot, and I guess I have to do a better education of the citizens as to what exactly this is,” Peralta said.
Saturday’s vote came the same week the Parish Council adopted a $58 million operating budget for 2015, with about $25.2 million coming from St. Bernard’s general fund. Now, unless the millages are eventually renewed, parish officials will have to start considering making cuts to services in the years ahead.
Parish Council Chairman Guy McInnis said he believes the election results were “definitely a referendum.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. We have to prepare to lose this revenue,” McInnis said. “We have to make sure that we have those cuts in place going into 2017.”
St. Bernard Fire Chief Thomas Stone, who saw his department’s three millage requests — which together would have generated more than $2 million a year, almost one-third of his budget — all shot down, said he isn’t sure whether it was “some type of anti-tax movement” that swept through the parish. But he offered dire predictions on Tuesday, saying that “if those millages don’t get renewed, it could have a drastic effect on the fire services of this parish.”
Like Peralta, Stone believes that parish officials need to “come back and do a better education program on the renewals and how important they are to us, and hopefully we’ll have better luck in the future.”
“I know people talked about the parish population being smaller than it was pre-Katrina, but the distances between fire stations are the same,” he said. “St. Bernard is long and spread out, so you need to spread these fire stations out.”
In reading the tea leaves, Peralta speculated that some of St. Bernard’s 43,500 residents may be feeling tax fatigue, being asked to approve a long list of taxes just days after receiving their property tax bills in the mail. “I think that probably irritated people,” he said.
But without the money from the millages, the first-term parish leader forecasts “significant cutbacks in services,” potentially including closing fire stations and laying off parish employees.
“We have done all the cutting that we can possibly cut,” he added. “I’m at bare-bones levels right now. We lose this money, we’re going to lose personnel.”
Concerns over the millage vote were apparent Monday when the Parish Council signed off on the appointment of a new chief administrative officer during a special meeting. Councilman-at-Large George Cavignac noted his anxiety about the results and said that winning public favor for the measures on a second try would be a top task for Peralta’s new No. 2, Michael Gorbaty.
“This Saturday was very disappointing, as far as the millage renewals go,” Cavignac told Gorbaty. “I’d like to speak for all my constituents that I heard from just to get it out there to let you know that you’ve got a tough road ahead of you to get that back on track, because that’s one of the biggest problems this administration’s going to have to get straightened out.”
The list of millage losers also included a request to raise the Lake Borgne Levee District’s current 11.1-mill tax by another 7.5 mills, which would have generated an additional $2.6 million annually for 30 years for building and maintaining levees and flood protection systems. Proponents of the measure contended that it was necessary to effectively operate and maintain the parish’s 60 miles of levees, 33 floodgates and two navigation floodgates in the area’s hurricane protection system. The proposition lost by 1,830 votes.
That was one of a dozen millages that St. Bernard voters rejected.
A second new millage request was voted down by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. It would have put in place a 3-mill, 10-year property tax that would have generated about $917,000 annually, starting next year, 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.
Other millage requests shot down Saturday would have raised $1.1 million a year for public libraries; $672,000 a year for recreation; $192,000 a year for public health or the Coroner’s Office; $291,000 a year for senior citizens programs; $945,000 a year for garbage collection; and $945,000 a year for maintaining public roads and highways.
McInnis — who is considering running for parish president next year — said the parish has time to give the millage requests another try. He plans to meet with residents to get a better sense about what drove the vote the first time, he said.
“These taxes, most of them, run through 2016, so that gives us some time to make sure that our budget is cut for that,” he said. “We have two years basically to prepare for that, and if the administration comes up with a package to try to put them back on at a certain point in time, we’ll have to evaluate that.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.