A property tax increase to boost police and fire funding in New Orleans by about $26.6 million a year for 12 years and a bond issue that will largely be used for repairing streets are on the ballot for voters in the city today.
Elsewhere in the metro area, voters in Gretna will decide whether to renew a fire tax, and St. Tammany Parish voters will choose whether to renew two sales taxes to operate their courthouse and jail and a property tax renewal for the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Center, which houses juvenile offenders.
New Orleans officials, as well as members of the business community and police and firefighters unions, made a push this week for passage of the property tax increase, arguing it is crucial to ensuring the city can fund an expansion of the Police Department’s depleted ranks, properly fund firefighters’ pensions and pay a $75 million judgment owed to firefighters for unpaid wages.
But while the measure has been endorsed by a long list of organizations, the public has appeared to be more ambivalent, although there is little or no organized opposition.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the proposed 7.5-mill increase in January, about a year after voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing the city to as much as double existing 5-mill taxes for both police and firefighters if the city’s voters agreed.
Landrieu held off putting the proposal on the ballot while negotiating with the firefighters union over a decades-old lawsuit that sought $75 million in back pay owed to its members, an issue that the administration sought to tie to reforms in their dismally performing pension system. That deal was struck late last year.
Voters will be presented with a single ballot item for the increases for both police and firefighters. Of the total, a 2.5-mill increase for the Fire Department would provide about $8.9 million a year, which would be plugged into the pension system, freeing up other money the city would use to pay the back-pay judgment over the next dozen years.
The roughly $17.7 million to be generated by a 5-mill increase for the Police Department would go toward expanding the force from 1,163 officers at present to about 1,600 officers by 2020. While that’s an ambitious recruitment target, officials have said the money to be generated by the increase would cover only a portion of the revenue needed to pay for the new officers.
The tax increase would take effect in 2017 and would apply to the full value of properties in the city; the usual homestead exemption does not apply to the special police and fire millages. That would amount to a tax increase of $112.50 a year for every $150,000 of a property’s value.
While the tax has the support of the business community, labor groups and several nonpartisan watchdog organizations, there has been skepticism among some voters.
“It’s never a great time, but it’s a necessary time” to ask for more money, Landrieu said. “It’s absolutely necessary that we do this.”
City residents also are being asked to support a $120 million bond issue that would be paid for with existing taxes. The bonds would largely go toward street repairs, with some money for new trucks for the Fire Department.
Complicating efforts to predict the results is the likelihood of a low turnout for an election that doesn’t feature any campaigns for political offices.
There were 5,230 ballots cast in early voting in Orleans Parish, or about 2 percent of the city’s registered voters. Election officials typically expect a total turnout of 10 percent to 15 percent for tax elections.
In St. Tammany Parish, voters will decide the fate of two existing quarter-cent sales taxes that each bring in about $11.3 million a year for running the courthouse and the jail and are due to expire in 2018. The renewal would extend them for 20 years.
Voters also will decide whether to renew a 3-mill property tax for the juvenile detention center, which serves several north shore parishes.
Gretna voters will decide whether to renew a 5-mill property tax for 10 years that provides $715,000 a year to help fund the David Crockett Volunteer Fire Department.
Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.