Repeatedly returning to the idea that “sacrifice” and “agony” are necessary for progress, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stumped Wednesday for proposed new taxes to fund more police officers and pay off a $75 million settlement with the city’s firefighters.
In a speech organized by the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research, which has been skeptical of taxes the administration has proposed in the past, Landrieu ticked through his administration’s handling of “cataclysmically difficult challenges” as he worked up to the proposal. The challenges included efforts that have caused short-term headaches for residents, most notably efforts to rebuild roads and drainage systems that have snarled traffic around the city and particularly Uptown.
But Landrieu cast those problems as an unfortunate but necessary trade-off, as he did in discussing other issues such as the furloughs and layoffs of city workers early in his first term that he said were necessary to put the city on stable financial footing, as well as hikes in Sewerage & Water Board rates to fund needed repairs.
And with new taxes headed to the spring ballot, another sacrifice will be necessary, he said.
“We’re now at the point where citizens are going to have to step up,” Landrieu said.
BGR regularly weighs in on tax proposals and other propositions, often with a skeptical eye. The watchdog group recommended voters shoot down a 2.5-mill property tax to help fund the library system last year, arguing the administration had not laid out a detailed plan for the money. That vote showed the limits of the organization’s influence, as the millage ended up passing in a landslide.
Landrieu has proposed two new property taxes for public safety services that will be listed as a single proposition on the April ballot. A 5-mill tax that would bring in an additional $17.73 million a year would go toward hiring, training and equipping more police officers as the city seeks to expand the ranks of the Police Department. A 2.5-mill tax would generate $8.87 million a year for firefighters’ pensions, freeing up money now spent on their retirement to be used to pay $75 million the city owes them in back pay.
“You can’t tell us with a straight face that you want more police officers but you’re not willing to pay for them,” Landrieu said.
In defending the need for new taxes despite increasing revenue from other sources, Landrieu pointed to familiar targets: a city budget that was in tatters when he came into office, steep cuts in federal support for cities and police forces over the past several decades, and federal consent decrees the administration estimates will cost between $50 million and $60 million a year to implement.
Landrieu gave a nod to a recent BGR report that raised questions about whether the plethora of dedicated taxes in the city means some priorities are going unfunded while less crucial services are flush. Addressing that issue would require significant changes to state laws governing the taxes, and even if the effort were successful, it would not free up enough money to meet the city’s needs, Landrieu said.
Still, he said, a long-term goal will be to review and change those dedications, which could result in the city rather than the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center getting a larger share of local hotel tax revenue, for example.
“We need a massive review of all those resources,” Landrieu said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.