The easiest thing to do in politics is kill a tax proposition. Even modest opposition typically sows enough doubt to convince voters to say “no.”
So when some New Orleans City Council members began picking apart the ballot language of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed 3-mill “property tax for maintenance” at their July 25 meeting — before the proposition was even officially put on the ballot — it did not auger well for the tax’s fate.
As it turns out, council members voted 4-2 to postpone a decision on the Nov. 16 ballot language until their Aug. 8 meeting.
To be clear, the issue is not whether to ask voters for more money, but how to phrase the request. Some council members feel the mayor’s proposed ballot language is too broad. They want it to focus on infrastructure, particularly now that voters are hyper-focused on flooding and rising property assessments. (New Orleans property owners recently learned that assessments are going up — in some cases, way up.)
The administration wants the ballot language to allow room for other important items, such as computer software, cyber-security, police cars and furnishings — in addition to infrastructure.
Cantrell did not personally make the pitch for the broader language. Instead, her top staffers pressed the council — unsuccessfully so far — to give both the administration and council members flexibility to meet future maintenance demands, whatever they may be.
Both sides made good arguments. From some council members’ perspective, it’s easy to foresee people questioning why a new millage would not focus on infrastructure, especially after Cantrell herself campaigned on that issue. On the other hand, it also makes sense to give the city flexibility to meet unforeseen future needs, particularly when the council must approve every expenditure beforehand anyway.
"We have found that after a year of unchecked growth we need to change the rules." — New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer
The administration and the council did agree on one thing: putting a $500 million bond issue — mostly for infrastructure — on the Nov. 16 ballot. The bond issue would cover items such as streets, bridges, drainage, stormwater management, public safety, libraries and more. Administration officials said it would “fill in” needs that post-Hurricane Katrina FEMA grants did not cover.
As for the proposed 3-mill property tax, the debate may go beyond the ballot language by Aug. 8. The mayor’s team acknowledged that the $10.2 million a year they expect the proposed tax to generate is based on 2019 property tax rolls — which already are being hiked significantly. That means the take from 3 mills could well be a million or two more, which would make the case for a lower proposed millage rate.
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That’s especially true in light of other upward pressures headed for local property tax bills. For example, once the new property tax rolls are certified, local taxing authorities will consider whether to “roll forward” their millage rates — back up to present levels, after state-mandated millage reductions render reassessments revenue neutral.
Then there’s the anticipated “drainage fee” the mayor is considering; plus the proposed new tax on short-term rentals (which won’t affect most property owners); plus a handful of local millages that expire in 2021, which are almost certain to come up for renewal next year.
That’s a lot of “asks” — no matter how you phrase it.