The state Bond Commission on Thursday agreed to send a property tax proposal that would generate $6.6 million for senior citizen services to New Orleans voters, even though Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration tried to block it.
With the commission's approval, the 2-mill tax will now be placed on the March 30 ballot. If it passes, the money would go to the New Orleans Council on Aging.
Typically, approval of local tax proposals by the Bond Commission is merely a procedural step. But the disagreement between Cantrell and the City Council, which voted unanimously to put the increase on the ballot, added an element of tension to the proceedings Thursday.
Cantrell has argued against the proposal as part of a broader criticism of taxes collected in New Orleans that are dedicated to funding entities outside of city government.
Rather than argue the merits of the tax proposal, Cantrell's director of state relations, Monika Gerhart, told the Bond Commission that it would cost the city $440,000 to put the tax on the March ballot when there is no statewide election.
Taxpayers would then have to pony up the same amount May 4, when a proposal to renew and redistribute an Audubon Commission millage, which is supported by both Cantrell and the City Council, is expected to be put to the voters, she said.
"We are not asking the Bond Commission to make a policy decision," she said. "But we have concerns about the cost, date and scope of this election."
That position got support from Democratic state Rep. Neil Abramson, Cantrell's point man in the Legislature, and raised questions from Republican Reps. Cameron Henry and Phillip DeVillier.
Abramson said the money to be spent on the election could be better used funding city priorities, including potentially the Council on Aging. That, he argued, would potentially reduce the amount New Orleans would need to seek from the Legislature in the coming year.
"Perhaps these funds could be used more economically than holding a second special election," Abramson said.
But state Sen. J.P. Morrell, another New Orleans Democrat, noted that none of the 20 other tax elections approved for the March ballot by the Bond Commission on Thursday got similar scrutiny.
He said that for the commission to start weighing in on elections would open up the process to fights over the value of the proposed taxes, rather than just ensuring all the legal requirements had been met for the proposals to move forward.
All of the commission members who questioned the measure eventually voted in favor of allowing it to appear on the ballot.
Even state Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who described the decision to pay for two elections as "crazy," said the Bond Commission should not start second-guessing local officials.
"Otherwise, we get in a very precarious position of anyone who’s opposed to the election coming before us and saying, 'Don’t hold the election,' " Dardenne said. "I think it would be a very bad precedent to set."
Council on Aging Executive Director Howard Rodgers has pushed for the tax, saying it is needed to fund programs like Meals on Wheels, which has almost 1,300 people on its waiting list.
But the Cantrell administration has argued that while the goal of providing more funding for senior services is laudable, the tax was ill-conceived and should have been included in a more comprehensive measure that would fund a wide variety of programs that could be grouped under the umbrella of "public health."