Update, 4:20 p.m. : East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden’s tax plan will likely hit a snag. Ahead of the council meeting, some council members were buzzing about the fact that the Baton Rouge Plan of Government requires that bond and tax elections be held in September, October or November.
William Daniel, Holden’s chief administrative officer, said they could still have the election if they declared an emergency. He said it is a public safety emergency because of recent deaths of mentally ill people who were incarcerated.
Still, some council members ahead of the meeting said this exacerbated concerns they had about a spring election.
Update, 2:45 p.m.: The East Baton Rouge Metro Council meets today at 4 p.m. in the City Hall council chambers for its first meeting of the new year. The council is jumping right into an important and controversial vote about whether to let voters weigh in on Mayor President Kip Holden's $335 million tax plan to fund a slate of public safety construction projects, headlined by a $204 million new parish prison.
If the council approves the measure today, then voters will weigh in on the tax proposal, which is divided into three parts, on May 2.
Despite the taxes combining to pay for construction and operation of the new facilities — from a bigger new jail to a center for mentally ill people picked up by police — voters would be able to decide on each separately. Holden’s tax plan could take on a different form or be nixed completely depending on which taxes voters approve or reject.
The three taxes, which include a quarter-cent sales tax, a 0.5-mills property tax and a 1.5-mills property tax, would go toward a host of public safety projects for the parish. The Metro Council will vote Wednesday on whether the tax plan should appear on voters’ May 2 ballots.
The sales tax would pay the $335 million construction price tag for a host of public safety projects, which also include offices for the district attorney and public defender, a new juvenile justice center and further improvements at the police headquarters building. The larger property tax is expected to generate $5.7 million to operate the new parish prison, while the smaller property tax would garner $1.8 million to operate the mental health center.
Exactly what would happen if one tax passes and the others fail — or two taxes pass and one fails — depends on how voters react.
Voters rejecting the sales tax, while approving the property taxes, would essentially put the kibosh on the whole plan. Representatives for both the city-parish and East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux pledged they would not collect property taxes to run new buildings that won’t be built.
But should voters pass the sales tax, but reject property taxes to cover operational expenses, the city and sheriff could decide to move forward with at least some of the plan.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Holden, said even without the money in hand to run the new jail, a new parish prison will be necessary. However, Daniel was more foggy on the future of the mental health center if voters don’t approve that operational tax.
“We have to have a new prison and we hope we can convince the public that these projects should be considered all as one,” Daniel said. “But if one of them doesn’t pass, we’re going to have to have a new prison.”
He said the Mayor’s Office would work with the Sheriff’s Office to figure out a solution if they get the construction money, but the property tax fails. One option could be to bring the measure back to taxpayers, an avenue the officials would certainly have time to pursue since the prison’s projected construction finish date is October 2019.
Making a second appeal to the taxpayers is also a possibility should voters shoot down the property tax to operate the mental health restoration center, which proponents envision as a place to drop off non-violent people picked up for minor crimes who need metal health or substance abuse treatment. The center, which officials argue will lessen the burden on the jail to treat the mentally ill, is expected to be completed by August 2017.
“What we would do is delay the Restoration Center or not build it at all depending upon whether or not we could identify another funding source,” Daniel said.
Baton Rouge Area Chamber representatives have been working on plans for the restoration center, and have said they are already looking at alternate ways to help pay for it. Among the options are federal grants, Medicaid money and state dollars.
Metro Council members will be asked to decide whether to put the two tax items on the ballot at their first meeting of the new year. Daniel argued it was imperative that council members act Wednesday and not defer the issue.
But members will only vote on two of the proposals: the quarter-cent sales tax and .5-mill property tax.
The sheriff can place measures on the ballot without Metro Council approval. Sheriff spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said Gautreaux will not add his 1.5 mills property tax to the May ballot if the Metro Council rejects the other taxes.
If the sales tax is approved, consumers in the cities of Baton Rouge, Zachary and the unincorporated parts of the parish will pay 9.25 percent in combined local and state sales taxes. In Baker and Central, sales taxes would increase to 9.75 percent.
Owners of a $250,000 homestead-exempt home would pay an extra $35 annually if both property taxes pass.
The Metro Council could also vote Wednesday to add yet another tax to the spring ballot. The St. George Fire Department is asking for a tax hike that would increase a millage that expires in 2015 from 1.25 mills to 3.25 mills. Fire Chief Gerard Tarleton has said they need the extra money for new and upgraded fire stations, fire hydrants and also the rising costs of day-to-day duties.
If all are approved, East Baton Rouge voters could expect to see four different tax proposals when they walk into the voting booths come May.
Staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.