cats buses (copy)

Advocate file photo -- Three buses idle, waiting to take off the CATS downtown bus hub in front of the Old State Capitol in this file photo from 2016.

Voters will be asked in October to extend a property tax that generates millions of dollars a year for Baton Rouge's bus system.

The Capital Area Transit System unanimously approved Monday two propositions, one for the city of Baton Rouge and one for the City of Baker. 

“As our region emerges from the current economic downturn, CATS is more essential than ever to drive our local economy by serving our customers who depend on our agency to get to work every day,” Erika Green, CATS Board President and Metro Council member, said in a statement. “Without this millage renewal, CATS will be unable to fulfill this essential role for our community, and those who rely on us will be left with no other option to get to work, access healthcare and be active participants in our local economy.”

If approved, the funds from the tax will be used to increase the availability of the bus system, decrease wait times, improve bus stops and fund the operations of the system, according to the proposition language.

The election will be held Oct. 9, where registered voters who live in the city limits of Baker and Baton Rouge will be asked to approve a 10-year tax at a rate of 10.6 mills.

A "mill" is $1 of tax for every $1,000 in taxable property value, meaning the owner of a house with an assessed value of $100,000 would pay $106 annually.

Baton Rouge residents are currently taxed for the bus system at a millage rate of 10.06, and Baker residents are taxed at a rate of 9.6-mill. Those rates began in September after a parishwide re-assessment resulted in increased property tax values for many residents, prompting CATS to roll back rates for each city from the original 10.6-mill voters approved in 2012.

The tax generated about $19.8 million from Baton Rouge and $553,000 from Baker in 2020 under the rolled-back rate. The system would have collected $20.8 million from Baton Rouge and $611,000 from Baker in 2020 under a 10.6-mill rate, according to East Baton Rouge Assessor Brian Wilson.

The system has an annual budget of over $30 million when rider fares and federal money is included. The revenue from the tax represents about 58% of the system's operating budget, according to a news release. 

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If approved, the renewal rate of 10.6-mill would begin in 2022 and last through 2031 before again requiring voter approval.

The tax was first approved in 2012 at a time that the bus system was facing bankruptcy. If the renewal fails to pass this year, the system says it “will eventually be unable to provide transit services to the Baton Rouge community.”

Voters previously rejected a 3.5-mill property tax for CATS in 2010 before giving the OK to the 2012 proposition.

Monday’s approval in a special board meeting came after several months of delays. The proposal was originally set to be OK’d in April, but the board was forced to delay a month after neglecting to fulfill a public notice requirement and alert local legislators of the planned election. Flash flooding then forced the cancellation of the May meeting.

The bus system also launched a campaign in May to rally support for the tax through community meetings and endorsements from local leaders.

As it begins its campaign for public support, CATS is battling a federal lawsuit from its labor union, which accuses CEO Bill Deville of “union busting” by punishing employees who spoke out about “corrupt business practices” and unsafe working conditions. The lawsuit was filed after the transit agency fired several union officers last year for allegedly leaking a co-worker's sex tape.

Union leaders and CATS employees have already voiced a willingness to help the system promote the tax renewal to the community, Deville said last month.

This story has been updated to correct the amount an average homeowner would pay in taxes annually.