In one of his first public pitches for a tax hike he said will be key to easing the city’s budget woes, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday that he wants residents to prioritize the city’s spending.
Facing a Supreme Court judgment directing the city to cough up $17.5 million in back payments to the firefighters pension fund, Landrieu suggested the decision on whether to pay the money rests largely in the hands of voters, who he said will be weighing whether to pay that debt or pay for other city services.
“One of the challenges is going to be, when we go to the public, not necessarily what I think is important. I know what bills are sitting on my desk. But the public may have a very different view,” Landrieu said. “So notwithstanding the fact that the firefighters pension fund obligation may be imminent, the public may say, ‘That’s really nice, but I want you to fix my streets.’ The public may say, ‘I don’t want my libraries to close.’ The public may say, ‘I’d rather fund NORD.’ ”
Voters will not actually be asked to choose from among various expenditures, but Landrieu indicated he expects residents to make their views clear to the City Council before it decides whether to put a tax increase on the ballot.
He placed the onus on the firefighters union to make its case to the people.
The mayor’s comments came in response to a question from firefighters union President Nick Felton, who asked if the city intends to seek the full 5-mill increase in a special property tax for fire protection allowed under a law passed in this year’s legislative session, if voters both statewide and in New Orleans agree.
Landrieu and Felton both were present Wednesday morning at a “breakfast briefing” of the Bureau of Governmental Research, where the mayor was the guest speaker. Landrieu used the platform to make the case that property owners should pay more to sustain the city’s growth as it contends with a budget crunch.
In addition to the $17.5 million owed to the firefighters pension fund, the city must cough up an undetermined amount for court-ordered jail reforms, which could cost more than $20 million next year, Landrieu indicated. That’s on top of the five-year, $55 million cost of the police consent decree and continued investment in the Police Department to increase its ranks by at least 400 officers.
Those new costs threaten to upend the city’s “already delicate financial position,” Landrieu said.
The administration pushed the Legislature this year to give it permission to seek a property tax increase, which could bring in as much as $30 million a year, to help meet those and other financial demands. The Legislature approved an increase of as much as 5 mills each, for a total of 10 mills, for police and fire protection.
Voters statewide will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment authorizing the tax hikes on the Nov. 4 ballot. If the request passes both in the state and in Orleans Parish, the City Council would then be able to put the millage rate increases on a local ballot. The mayor has committed to asking voters to approve the full 5-mill increase for police protection. But he hasn’t guaranteed the same support for the Fire Department increase.
The mayor said he believes the current firefighters pension system is “unsustainable, doesn’t make any sense and needs to be changed.
“One of the issues that the people of New Orleans have to decide is whether or not they want to fund this system that is not properly reformed yet,” he said.
Landrieu essentially disclaimed any responsibility for pushing the public to support the fire increase. He said he would not campaign for the hike unless the firefighters agree to amend the current pension system “in a way that I feel good that I can tell the public that this system is sustainable.”
“You guys have got to take your fight to the public,” Landrieu told Felton. “The public is going to have to agree that that’s what they want to do because that’s where the money is going to come from.”
Landrieu also began laying the groundwork for an argument he plans to present to the Legislature next year. He is campaigning for a revision to the tax system that would slow or stop the siphoning away to the state of tax dollars generated in New Orleans by major events like the Super Bowl and Essence Festival. Although Super Bowl XLVII, played in New Orleans in 2013, was responsible for $480 million in spending, city government took in only $500,000 in extra taxes, Landrieu said.
“The city of New Orleans can no longer bear the entire burden and do so much of the work and be the last one to get paid or not get paid at all,” Landrieu said. “It’s not fair. It’s not sustainable. The budget is just too tight, and the current system is not right.”