Metro Council members are again trying to stopgap East Baton Rouge revenue shortfalls by diverting money from other taxing agencies.
Metro Councilman Dwight Hudson wants to hold a special election later this year asking voters to approve reallocating about $5.7 million in property taxes meant for the library system and mosquito control so the city-parish can instead use the money to improve its antiquated flood protections.
Hudson, whose southeastern district is prone to flash flooding, sees his effort as a logical solution to creating the infusion of cash it'll take for the city-parish to catch up its backlog of projects and properly maintain the system to prevent homes, businesses and streets from getting swamped anytime it rains hard enough within a short timespan.
"We need to focus on the long term; make sure drainage maintenance is set up for the next 25 to 50 years," he said. "And with the current allocations we get from tax revenues, we're not doing that."
Brenda Boyd is living in a house with no flooring and almost no furniture — and the bottom half of the walls is missing.
But his campaign is getting some pushback from the folks in charge of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library System and Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control who say it's unfair to ask them to solve another department's issue just because they've maintained healthy revenue balances over the years.
"We're a little concerned with the whole approach which could erode voter confidence in the millage system," said Spencer Watts, director of city-parish libraries. "You can't have a situation where every time there is a need or a good idea folks say, 'Let's come and take part of your income and use it for something else because you've saved all this money.'"
Roderick Wells, chairman of MARC's governing board, agreed.
"Eventually, down the road, they'll be saying it's costing them more money than they assumed originally and then ask us for another millage," he said. "To me, it's not a good deal."
'We need to do a better job'
This tax reallocation attempt marks the second time Hudson has led an effort to dip into the revenue streams of other taxing bodies to try and boost the money flowing into the city-parish operating budget. Last time, he not only targeted the library system, but the Council on Aging as well as parks and recreation, all of which have amassed healthy savings through voter-approved taxes.
The earlier attempt stalled for multiple reasons, including adamant pushback from targeted agencies, lack of interest from the rest of the council and scrutiny over whether it's even legal to reallocate funds voters explicitly approved for another purpose.
Hudson is taking a different tack this time. For one thing, he's taking his proposal to voters, on the advice of the Parish Attorney's Office. He's also making it a bipartisan effort by having Council Pro Tem Lamont Cole, a Democrat, cosponsor the measures.
"It was important we had wide support on this," the Republican councilman said. "We decided to focus on the agencies we could agree on. That's what the public expects us to do. We have a three-year backlog for drainage maintenance. It's obvious we need to do a better job."
"Drainage maintenance is funded through the general fund," he added. "And with so many pressures there, it became difficult to go into the rest of the budget to redirect revenue there."
The city-parish annually earmarks about $8 million for drainage. The department's backlog has been estimated somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Their weekdays usually begin around 6 a.m.
A taxing equation
The city-parish is using the windfall in federal pandemic aid it's receiving over the next few years on a multitude of flood-protection projects that should stop frequent stormwater backup. However, that's only one-time money, Hudson and other city-parish officials have noted.
City-parish leaders have also acknowledged that $8 million isn't enough to maintain the system now or in the future once those improvements happen.
Hudson's proposal — on which the Metro Council will hold a public hearing when they return July 28 — could generate nearly $6 million a year in additional tax dollars for drainage maintenance and improvements for eight years starting in 2023.
But voters would have to approve shaving off 1-mill from the library's 10.52 millage rate and .25 mills from the 1.06 mills voters approved for mosquito and rodent control during a parishwide special election on Nov. 13. Both property taxes currently generate about $50 million and $5 million a year, respectively.
The new revenues collected for drainage in Baker, Central and Zachary would go to their governing authorities to spend on localized drainage needs, Hudson explained.
The current proposal would mean property taxes wouldn't change in regards to what's levied for libraries and pest control. Just that some of that revenue would be re-dedicated since the Metro Council doesn't want to increase the amount levied for its parishwide property tax — which would also generate the additional revenue needed across multiple sectors in the operating budget if they could gain voter approval for it.
"We're coming off a global pandemic that has really hindered small businesses," Hudson said. "A lot of local residents don't think a tax increase is something we should be pursuing right now."
"At the same time," he added, "we've looked at all the dedicated taxes and there's room to reprioritize there."
For example, the library system has accumulated more than $95.7 million through its property tax, which Watts realizes is so attractive for city-parish leaders.
But he points out the library system has dedicated more than $106.1 million for projects, improvements and services it promised the public when its 10-year tax last came up for renewal.
The libraries run on what he calls a "pay-as-you-go" plan, meaning they never have to borrow money for projects and facility upgrades because they've already saved enough cash.
"Because of the (COVID) restrictions, we have such a real healthy surplus this year," Watts said. "We're not going to operate as if we're in a pandemic forever. This current proposal would undercut library operations drastically."
Watts said he understands and even empathizes with city-parish drainage needs, but the library would only be willing to help through some kind of compromise. He didn't elaborate on what that might entail.
"We're certainly understanding of the problem and the urgency around addressing stormwater issues," he said. "(And) we're willing to help in any way we can — as long as we're maintaining the integrity of library operations."
It's not likely leaders in East Baton Rouge Parish will give in to residents' demands for a moratorium on development — at least not any time soon.
Hudson countered that even with his proposed cut, the library system would still have about $46 million in annual revenues to work with.
"We can absolutely run an exceptional public library system with that much money," he said.
Wells is holding on to his belief that it doesn't feel right to let another taxing authority swoop in and shave off revenues from the tax for which mosquito-and-rodent control's board gained voter buy-in.
And just as for the library system, he said MARC also has planned improvements and operation costs that the diverted revenues would hamper.
"We have two airplanes to maintain, we're getting helicopter in 2022, the costs of chemicals keeps going up," he said. "We've saved up and put money aside so that if we didn't get approved for another 10-year millage cycle we'd be able to still operate for at least a year."