In an effort to expand the ability of the New Orleans Council on Aging to provide home-delivered meals and other services for the elderly, the City Council took the exceedingly rare step on Thursday of placing a proposed new tax on the ballot over the objections of Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
The council’s unanimous move to ask voters to approve a two-mill property tax hike came amid glowing promises about the benefits that would come from the $6 million it would generate.
But in forging ahead with the plan, the council broke with a tradition of deferring to — or at least cooperating with — the mayor’s office when it comes to seeking new revenue from taxpayers.
The five-year tax, proposed by City Councilmen Jason Williams and Jared Brossett last month, is just a procedural step away from appearing on the March 30 ballot.
“This is special because it’s been promised for a long time and it's … overdue,” Williams said to more than 100 seniors gathered in the council chamber Thursday. The tax will “deliver a good quality of life and allow seniors to remain independent and healthy,” he declared.
If approved, the millage would cost the owner of a $250,000 house with a homestead exemption about $35 a year.
In a letter sent to the council Wednesday night, Cantrell asked it to refrain from placing the tax proposal on the ballot, saying it did not represent a “holistic and collaborative” approach to funding the city’s needs.
"New Orleans must protect and improve the services for our seniors, and funding elderly services should be discussed in conjunction with other city needs, like early childhood education and mental health," Cantrell wrote. "In the spirit of collaboration, we should work together to develop a proposal that addresses all of our community's needs collectively."
Williams, during the meeting, said senior services need their own dedicated stream of tax revenue.
“If we try to just move money in the general fund, then people would say, ‘You’re taking money from police. You’re taking money from the streets. You’re taking money from streetlights,’ " he said.
The new tax would be specifically dedicated to providing services for the elderly, and Williams and other council members have said the Council on Aging would be the recipient of the funds.
Representatives of the organization on Thursday cited its ongoing efforts in New Orleans, include running senior centers and providing services such as housecleaning for the elderly.
A particular focus for council members was the meals provided by the group. It provides senior citizens about 780 free meals each day, with about 435 of those handed out through the Meals on Wheels program.
But funding constraints mean that 1,240 people are on a waiting list for those programs.
"There are senior citizens in our great city who go to bed hungry because of lack of resources, and we can do something about that," Williams said before the vote.
Still, Cantrell took issue with using taxpayer money to finance an agency outside of local government.
"Providing additional resources to an organization that the city does not directly control limits the input and direction that the city can provide in order to ensure accountability and effectiveness for our residents," she wrote.
That sentiment is in line with the mayor’s push to claim a greater portion of the local tax money that now goes to organizations outside of city government, especially hotel-motel taxes that fund the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and other tourism-related agencies.
Her letter specifically cites as a model a revamped millage proposal being crafted by the Audubon Nature Institute to share its taxpayer revenue with the city's other parks and recreation agencies. Cantrell said she will soon be asking the council to put that tax renewal on the ballot next year.
And, while Cantrell didn’t say it specifically, the success of that measure could end up tied to the senior citizens’ tax.
Typically, putting tax renewals or hikes before voters is a carefully coordinated effort involving the administration, the council and as many other supporters as possible.
New taxes can be a tough sell even when they would go to fund popular services. And a common concern among officials is that if presented with a list of proposed taxes on the ballot, voters will reject them all.
Thursday's vote is another example of the City Council once again bucking the Cantrell administration, something that has become a recurring event in the six months they have been in office.
And it comes as Brossett is running to become the next clerk of Civil District Court and Williams is believed to be mulling a run for district attorney. While taxes are not often a winning campaign issue, a measure to benefit seniors presumably would be popular with a group known for voting in large numbers.
Beyond the tax itself, council members also pledged they’ll be fighting for more senior funding in the city's operating budget for the coming year. Cantrell has yet to release her budget proposals for 2019.
“Nobody needs to have the impression that if this passes, everybody’s done,” Councilman Jay Banks said.