When the regional levee board asked St. Bernard Parish residents in December to approve a property tax increase to pay their share of maintaining the region’s new $14 billion hurricane protection system, 60 percent of those who voted said no.
But the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East isn’t taking that “no” for an answer just yet.
The board will hold a special meeting Thursday with a single agenda item: calling another vote. The intent is to ask voters again to approve a 67 percent increase in a special property tax that finances flood protection and drainage for the parish.
“We think the last result may have been more related to the fact there were so many statewide resolutions on the ballot,” said Nick Cali, executive director of the Lake Borgne Levee District, which covers St. Bernard and is overseen by the regional authority. “The voting pattern seemed to be a ‘no’ on everything.
“We’re going back because this is absolutely essential to provide protection from hurricanes and floods for our people.”
The property tax is required to help pay for the operation and maintenance of the system of levees, floodwalls and pumping stations the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built since Hurricane Katrina to provide storm-surge protection for the metro area.
Because East Jefferson, New Orleans and St. Bernard sit on the same flat, sinking delta surrounded by lakes and bays connected to the Gulf, storm surge invading one area can swamp the others. To meet that challenge, the Corps designed a perimeter system — in essence, one wall wrapped around the entire East Bank.
Although construction was paid for by the federal and state governments, operation and maintenance of the system must be paid by property owners in the three parishes.
East Jefferson and Orleans, with populations above 300,000, have had no trouble raising their portion of the bill with 3.91 and 6.21 mills of property tax respectively.
But with its population cut in half to about 35,000 since Katrina, St. Bernard is on course to fall into arrears even with the current millage of 11.1 mills.
The Lake Borgne Levee District, which also takes care of stormwater drainage in the parish, is seeking to raise that rate to 18.6 mills.
If approved, homeowners with properties at the following values, and claiming a homestead exemption, would face an increase of: a $100,000 house, $18.75 a year; $125,000, $37.50 a year; $150,000, $56.25 a year; and $175,000, $75 a year.
Cali is hoping the emphatic rejection the proposal received Dec. 6 can be overcome this time when there is, so far, nothing else on the ballot.
The election would be tentatively scheduled for May 2. The Secretary of State’s Office estimates the cost at about $35,000, to be paid by the Lake Borgne Levee District.
“Everyone I talked to since the first election understands why we need to have this, and I kind of wonder just how much they were aware before the last election,” Cali said.
“It also hurt that our tax bills arrived right before that last election. Everyone hates taxes, but they’re a necessary evil. You have to give government the money to do the jobs you depend on them to do.”
Parish President Dave Peralta endorsed the tax increase last time; the Parish Council did not officially consider the issue. Councilman George Cavignac, who supports the measure, said he has heard no arguments against it.
“The levee district is an independent political entity from the parish, so we have no control over it,” he said. “I can’t speak for the rest of the council, but I know this is something that is vital to the parish.”