Concerned that several city-parish agencies have considerable surpluses on their books, members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council want to examine whether they should readjust dedicated property tax rates and give less-well-off departments an opportunity to increase their millage rates.
The idea is to walk back millage rates for agencies that have levied the maximum amount to the point that they have accumulated healthy surpluses. Adjustments would let other agencies perhaps build a reserve and improve services and infrastructure.
Property taxes wouldn't go up or down but would rather be redirected.
Already, Councilmen Scott Wilson and Dwight Hudson have identified the parish's Council on Aging, library system and Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control office as agencies that could see funds redirected.
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Officials in those agencies are willing to listen to what the Metro Council has to say but said they are prepared to push back if they have to. Many of them claim the revenue they have accrued over the years is essential to their continued operations and ability to serve the community.
"Hopefully ... we can get to work on something," Wilson said. "A lot of these agencies have accumulated all this money. They have it, and they just want to spend it. But we need to figure out the needs of the parish and redirect some of those dollars."
Hudson said the biggest benefit in what they want to do would be funneling taxpayers money toward essential services and areas residents think city-parish needs the most improvement.
"Particularly what I'm interested in is what we can do to better address roads and drainage," Hudson said.
Linda Hunt, the city-parish's assistant finance director, said people wouldn't receive a break on their property taxes with the readjustment. All the city-parish would change would be how the pot of money is divided.
Now is the time to sit down and have discussions regarding millage rate adjustments since 2020 will mark a reassessment year for commercial and residential properties, officials in the Finance Department have previously said.
Usually when property values increase, as they did the last time they were re-assessed in 2016, taxing authorities usually must decrease their millage rates since they can still generate the level of revenue they to need to operate due to the increase in property values.
But taxing authorities can also elect to "roll forward" their millages, that means keep them at the same level they were before the reassessment or increase them to the maximum level approved by voters, thereby creating a surplus.
Several rural fire districts in the parish, emergency medical services and the Mosquito Abatement office won council approval in July 2016 to increase or "roll forward" their millage rates, according to meeting minutes.
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The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging saw its operating budget climb after voters approved a 2.25-mill, 10-year dedicated property tax in 2016 that ended up pumping nearly $500,000 in additional revenue than the $7.8 million that was projected.
According to the city-parish's recently adopted budget for 2019, the COA will receive about $9.2 million in revenue from the agency's dedicated tax. The agency is already sitting on a surplus of nearly $7 million, the city-parish budget states.
"While it is true that we have received more funds than expected, the additional revenue allows us to address the ever increasing needs that have come to light as a result of the millage," Jennifer Moisant, chairwoman of the board that oversees the Council on Aging, said in an prepared statement. "We didn’t anticipate the breadth of the increase in interest in the programs we offer, but once we opened new centers and started providing additional Meals on Wheels and other services, the demand for our programs and services skyrocketed. With each new center came a higher than expected participation rate."
Last month, the agency announced its building a new 25,000-square-foot facility on 2.8 acres of land it purchased along North 18th Street to expand its meal services program.
Moisant also highlighted a new center the Council on Aging opened recently in Hudson's district, where nearly 200 additional senior citizens signed up for services. It had only expected 75 new clients, she said.
She also said Meals on Wheels demand in Hudson's district has increased, too.
"The point is, the more the residents of our parish hear about our services, the more requests we receive," Moisant said. "Every dollar received is being directed towards projects which will allow us to continue to serve the ever increasing needs of the seniors."
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Wilson in the past has called out the library system as another taxing authority sitting on a healthy pot of tax revenue. The library board would definitely be a millage rate he'd want included in any readjustment discussions, he said.
The parish's 2019 budget shows the library board, which levies 11.10 mills in property taxes, has amassed about $65 million surplus funds in its coffers over the years.
Library Director Spencer Watts said that, unlike many agencies and government entities that bond out or borrow funds for capital improvement projects, the library board likes to build their reserves so it can fully fund improvements and construction projects without having to go into debt.
"We’ll have to see what they are proposing to do. How they would go about it? There needs to be more of a discussion," Watts said. "We’ve heard a little bit. We want to see what their rationale will be."
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Hudson and Wilson want the council to appoint a committee that would include representatives from the council and city-parish administrators to study the topic and present a measure to the full council for possible approval. Both council members said they'd like to begin those discussions when the council meets Jan. 9.
Both said they'd want the committee to take an "across-the-board" approach instead of just concentrating on the agencies they'd discussed publicly in the past.