Before the fish plates were served Friday at the senior center on the edge of Pontchartrain Park, Joyce Rawlins and Rose George were on opposite sides of a debate.
Rawlins, 73, supported giving the organization that manages the center more money in order to reduce waiting lists for the meals and services it provides.
"I was ill ... for three months," Rawlins said. "And it wasn't until I returned to health that they called me and told me they could deliver lunch to me."
But George, 82, told the three dozen other seniors in the room that they might be better off waiting for a plan that holds the agency more accountable for money it receives.
"The mayor is saying they are trying to figure out something else, and I'm waiting to see about that something else," she said. "Because we don't know what kind of position we are putting ourselves in by saying yes to the millage now, if, later, they just do anything they want with it."
New Orleans voters must settle that debate on March 30, when a proposal to give the city's Council on Aging an additional $6.6 million in annual property tax money will be the only item on the ballot in Orleans Parish.
The proposal would place an organization that has, since 1974, provided services to thousands of elderly local residents on an equal footing with 29 similar agencies in the state that receive dedicated tax money. It would be able to greatly expand its services.
But residents, many of whom have been slapped with higher tax bills because of rising home values, must first agree to add another 2 mills to their annual tax burden beginning in 2020, amounting to $35 more for the owner of a $250,000 home with a homestead exemption.
The proposal goes against Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s promise to shift around existing money to fund city priorities before asking voters to pony up new taxes. It exposes her fractured relationship with a City Council that muscled the issue onto the ballot against her wishes.
Although the Council on Aging receives municipal, state and federal appropriations, a dedicated property tax would serve as a buffer when those funding streams are inconsistent, said Howard Rodgers III, the group's executive director for two decades.
"The state's supplemental senior center funding, for example, is kind of used as a political football," Rodgers said. "What happens is, depending on the governor and depending on the Legislature, that particular money is usually held up as a way to try to get certain lawmakers to vote with some other package."
He noted that his agency serves more than 70,000 residents aged 60 and over, or a fifth of the city's population. That percentage is expected to increase as the Baby Boomer generation continues to reach retirement age.
Of the $5 million in operating revenue the agency received last year, $2.5 million came from the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs, $1.4 million from the city and the rest from federal grants, private contributions or other sources.
Funding was down by 5 percent overall, mainly thanks to a cut from the governor's office and a decline in private contributions. The agency spent $114,000 more than it took in, drawing from its fund balance to make up the difference.
With its operating budget more than doubling if the tax passes, Rodgers' group could serve an additional 1,200 people who are now on waiting lists for its Meals on Wheels program, provide meals on weekends for the first time, and welcome nearly 300 more people who want to enjoy programs at the Pontchartrain Community Center and 11 other senior centers across the city, he said.
Nearly 600 more residents could receive housekeeping services, and dozens more could be served under a program that once provided at-home senior care before it was scrapped.
All of that was enough to persuade City Councilman Jason Williams, one of the increase's most vocal proponents. "There are senior citizens that will go to bed hungry tonight," he said in an interview. Changing that “is only going to cost the average homeowner a few dollars.”
But Cantrell has urged the council to wait another year or so until she can come up with a "holistic approach" to funding senior services, one that will route aid through the city and not directly through Rodgers' group, which she said is not legally responsible to the public.
"I’m very supportive of seniors; that’s No. 1," the mayor said in an interview. "But my opinion is that we have to get away from creating these types of systems that do not have a built-in accountability ... where the mayor doesn't have a say, the council doesn't have a say. It's the same thing we see with hotel taxes going to the tourism industry, where we don't control the dollars, but other entities determine where that money goes and how it is spent."
Cantrell also touted services already being offered to seniors under other city programs, like the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission's water aerobics classes, senior chorus, senior dance classes and walking clubs. The New Orleans Public Library offers services for seniors and others who need help using computers.
The Bureau of Governmental Research is also against the tax. It faults the council for not coming up with a plan to hold the Council on Aging accountable for how the money would be spent .
In response, Rodgers pointed to clean audits for his organization, the quadrennial work plans it must send to the governor's office, and his personal commitment to ethical practices as a member of the city's Ethics Review Board.
A representative from Williams' office said that if the tax measure passes, the council will pass rules that spell out how the extra money will be spent.
The 2-mill addition would
make Orleans the 30th parish in the state to have a tax dedicated to senior centers; most of those parishes specifically funnel the money to the Council on Aging in their area, according to BGR.
Saturday's election is likely to be a low-turnout one, the type of race that draws only chronic voters, such as seniors, said Ed Chervenak, a political analyst and director of the University of New Orleans' survey research center.
"With only a single proposition on the ballot, this would certainly be classified as a low stimulus election. And, of course, it’s chronic voters who show up for these types of elections. Moreover, the proposition on the ballot seeks to levy a new property tax for the purpose of paying for services and programs for the elderly citizens of the city. The proposition is directed at the very people who show up the most consistently at the polls."
When asked what more the Council on Aging could provide, seniors at the Pontchartrain Center on Friday cited a need for more transportation, complained about the quality of meals served and asked for a well-lit bingo board.
George's accountability argument hit home in a slightly different way for Elizabeth Malone, 80, who has been coming to the center for a decade.
She said she voted for the tax during the early voting period that ended Saturday. And she suggested it was City Hall that couldn't be trusted to put funding where it says it will.
"My bottom line: I love this city, but they misappropriate too much money," Malone said. "We pay through the nose in property taxes for my house in New Orleans East, and they don't do a thing with that area."