St. Bernard Parish voters will soon decide, once again, whether to pay higher taxes to help maintain the levees, floodwalls and drainage system in the parish.
The Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, which covers St. Bernard, is seeking a 7.5-mill tax increase that officials say is necessary to maintain the flood protection system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and to ensure the parish’s pump systems and canals remain in working order.
The election will be May 2. Early voting runs through Saturday of this week.
Voters rejected the tax increase in December. If it passes this time, the total millage collected by the levee district would increase to 18.6 mills, which would bring in more than $6 million a year, levee district Executive Director Nick Cali said.
He said that much is needed to run a system in St. Bernard that has seen billions of dollars in upgrades since Hurricane Katrina and now costs more to operate and maintain.
“What it boils down to is the levee district is operating with pre-Katrina revenues,” Cali said.
The district, in fact, is now operating at a deficit, drawing down its reserves by about $500,000 a year just to pay for maintenance.
That maintenance is needed to keep up the 60 miles of levees and floodwalls, 33 floodgates and navigational floodgates that protect the parish — and the larger New Orleans region — from a storm surge during a hurricane or other large storm. Those costs include putting money away for long-term maintenance projects, such as an inspection and overhaul of five sector gates every 10 years that costs more than $1 million on its own, Cali said.
The responsibilities of the St. Bernard district are more extensive than those of other area levee districts on the east bank of the Mississippi River, which are grouped with the Lake Borgne Basin district under the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.
Unlike the Orleans or East Jefferson districts, the St. Bernard one also is charged with maintaining the parish’s drainage system — both pumps, several of which need to be replaced, and canals that must be used during regular storms as well as hurricanes.
That means keeping pump operators on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Cali said. Those workers maintain the equipment in good weather but also are available to spring into action when storms approach.
In addition to the large projects and major overhauls, the district is responsible for more mundane maintenance work, such as ensuring grass on the levees is cut and canals are kept clear of debris that can clog the pumps.
Cali said the St. Bernard district is leaner than before Katrina, with 31 employees now, compared with 44 before the flood. Should the millage pass, he said, he wants to hire seven more workers, to be split between the pump stations and the crews that work on the levees.
The millage proposal has the backing of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan public policy group in New Orleans.
The district first sought residents’ approval for the higher tax rate in December, but 61 percent of parish voters said no. St. Bernard voters also rejected 11 other tax extensions or increases on the same ballot, most by similar margins.
The number of tax measures on the ballot may have helped to sink the Lake Borgne millage, Cali said.
If approved, the increase would mean the owner of a $100,000 home with a homestead exemption would pay $18.75 more in taxes each year, while the owner of a $200,000 home with a homestead exemption would pay an extra $93.75 a year.
But if the system is not properly maintained, flood insurance premiums could go up, which would be a far bigger hit to the pocketbooks of residents, said Stephen Estopinal, president of the board of commissioners of the Flood Protection Authority-East.
“If we’re going to maintain the flood protection system, particularly if we’re going to maintain the rainfall system, we have to have the money to do it,” Estopinal said.
And because floodwaters know no parish boundaries, any failure of the protection system in St. Bernard would quickly cause problems in Orleans Parish as well.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.