Within a couple weeks of receiving their property tax notices this fall, Baton Rouge voters could decide the fate of two tax proposals targeting traffic congestion and the problems police face when they encounter the mentally ill.
The timing of the votes, along with a host of other factors, has some wondering whether the East Baton Rouge Metro Council should put two tax increases on the same ballot. Voters in December 2016 considered five tax proposals, including two similar to those proposed for this year's Dec. 8 ballot. Only two passed, but one couldn't take effect because its companion bill was unsuccessful.
“What I think is unwise is … putting two tax proposals on the same ballot, and the timing of the tax vote will be roughly a week after the property tax notices go out, so people are not going to be in a good mood,” said pollster John Couvillon of JMC Enterprises.
The city-parish assessor’s office generally sends property tax notices during the last week of November, while early voting begins Nov. 24 and runs through Dec. 1. The notices were delayed in 2016 after floods destroyed homes across the parish.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration said it is appropriate to put a half-cent sales tax increase and a 1.5-mill property tax increase on the same ballot this year because of “undoubtedly heightened priorities.”
“We know that we have some of the most congested roads in the nation,” Broome said in a statement. “We also know that addressing mental health and substance abuse is the key to reducing incarceration rates in our parish prison. The first step is to get these initiatives on the ballot. In the meantime, it’s our job to clearly communicate the benefits of each plan to voters so they can see the cost benefit.”
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City-parish Department of Transportation and Drainage Director Fred Raiford said in a recent interview the plan to widen Airline Highway, Nicholson Drive and numerous other congested roadways should convince voters that the projects are worth the money.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has suggested a property tax increase to develop The Bridge Center, a center that could handle people who need mental health assistance more than they need time in jail.
Broome’s proposed roads tax is a 30-year half-cent sales tax to raise a total of $912 million, while the mental health tax is a 10-year, 1.5-mill property tax that would raise $6.4 million annually for the next decade.
If the sales tax passes, a household earning $75,000 a year would expect to pay $46.52 more annually. If the Bridge Center tax passes, a home assessed at $200,000, with a homestead exemption, would pay an extra $18.75 a year _ less than the parish’s mosquito abatement tax.
The previous time the two taxes were listed on the same ballot, in December 2016, the tax for the mental health facility cost the same amount but the roads tax was structured differently. Then-Mayor-President Kip Holden, who billed it as an extension of his Green Light Plan from 2005, suggested a 5-mill property tax that would have raised less than the amount in Broome’s current plan.
The 2016 mental health tax failed with 51 percent of voters voting against it. Geographic election result breakdowns show that the tax was popular in Baton Rouge’s city limits, but it failed in Baker, Central, Pride, Zachary and unincorporated parts of southeastern Baton Rouge.
The 2016 roads tax was less popular, with 53 percent of voters saying “no.” It failed in many of the same areas as the mental health tax and was less popular in Baton Rouge’s city limits as well. The 2016 taxes also shared a ballot with an unsuccessful Visit Baton Rouge hotel tax and a successful north Baton Rouge hotel tax for the economic development district there. A fifth proposal, restructuring part of Holden's Green Light Plan, passed but couldn't take effect because a related bill failed.
A $16 million project to widen heavily-traveled Essen Lane between Interstate 10 and Perkins Road is set to be finished in roughly one month, …
Looking ahead, Couvillon said the city should set at least one tax plan back a few months.
“They should have pushed one or both of them to the spring 2019 ballot, particularly if another governmental entity decides they want to put a tax on the December ballot,” Couvillon said. “A wise person would shut the door to anything new being put on the ballot. In December 2016, there was nobody being that critical voice of reason.”
Voters in Zachary and Central, where neither tax was popular in 2016, are expected to turn out well for local races this fall.
Couvillon said the more specific the city-parish can be about the projects the roads tax would fund, the better voters might feel about it. And while those pushing for the mental health tax have argued it would lower the city-parish’s cost of housing people in jail, Couvillon said they need to be clearer about what the cost savings would amount to and what types of other projects that money could go toward.
Tax fatigue still has not lifted for some voters. Cecil Cavanaugh, who frequently implores Metro Council members to stop placing dedicated taxes on ballots, said he voted against the taxes in 2016 and will do so again later this year if they make the ballot.
His preference is that Baton Rouge would do away with the practice of dedicating taxes and instead determine its priorities each year from a general pool of money. Eliminating a dedicated tax requires a vote from the public, and Cavanaugh said he expects that voters would be willing to do so.
“If we put all of this back in one pot and then let the council and mayor come up with a budget for everything, we can allocate the money for whatever we need it for, rather than dedicate a tax,” said Cavanaugh, one of the founders of the state’s Tea Party.
Many East Baton Rouge Metro Council members have said in recent interviews with The Advocate that they are on the fence about the tax measures. Broome will need a coalition of supporters to place them on the ballot, and council members were critical last year of the lack of lobbying they received when Broome asked for a roads property tax. The Metro Council refused to place that tax on ballots in 2017.
The staff of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber has said it is excited about the potential of the tax plan to improve traffic conditions, but its board will not officially vote on whether to endorse the measure until an Aug. 28 meeting, at the earliest. BRAC publicly announced its endorsement for Broome’s previous roads tax just hours before council members voted on it.
Advocate Staff Writer Steve Hardy contributed to this report.