A nonpartisan research group is urging New Orleans and Jefferson Parish voters to support two tax measures that will be on the May 4 ballot.
The private Bureau of Governmental Research announced Tuesday that it has endorsed a measure that would extend through 2040 an existing 6.31-mill tax in Orleans Parish and shift how money from it is distributed among the city’s parks and recreation agencies, arguing that the plan would improve services without raising taxes.
BGR also threw its voice into the chorus of groups supporting a new 7.9-mill Jefferson schools tax that would help fund pay increases for teachers and other employees.
In Orleans, the recreation tax would redistribute the revenue, roughly $21 million a year, that currently goes to the Audubon Commission, the Department of Parks and Parkways and the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission.
If the ballot measure is approved, the amount going to the Audubon Commission would be sharply reduced, while Parks and Parkways and NORDC would see increases. New Orleans City Park would receive some property tax revenue for the first time in its history.
"New Orleans’ parks and recreation facilities support citizens’ quality of life. They also draw many visitors from around the region and beyond. But the existing property taxes fund too narrow a range of entities and purposes," BGR said. "The proposition gives voters a chance to rebalance the tax revenue."
In 2014, voters soundly rejected Audubon’s attempt to reap an additional $2 million annually over 50 years to help cover the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium of the Americas’ operations. That plan would have raised the combined 3.31 mills Audubon now gets for those two facilities to 4.2 mills.
Under the May 4 ballot proposal, Audubon and NORDC would each get 1.95 mills of the 6.31-mill tax, bringing each one roughly $6.4 million a year at current property valuations. That means Audubon will lose about $4.5 million a year that it gets at present, while NORDC will gain $1.5 million a year.
Parks and Parkways will receive 1.8 mills, or roughly $6 million, an increase of about $1 million. City Park will receive 0.61 mills, or about $2 million.
Homeowners would continue to pay $63.10 in parks and recreation taxes for each $100,000 of property value above the $75,000 homestead exemption. Commercial property owners would continue to pay $88.34 per $100,000 of property value.
If approved, the redistribution would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021, and run for 20 years.
The proposal has drawn the support of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the Botanical Garden Foundation, the NOLA Tree Project and several neighborhood organizations, according to the Together for Parks Alliance, a political action committee formed to back the tax measure.
"This millage adjustment is about creating more equitable access and more opportunities for our residents, without any additional expense," Cantrell said.
In Jefferson, BGR is backing the school system’s proposed 7.9-mill tax to fund pay increases. It would generate nearly $29 million a year that would be dedicated toward giving raises to employees, especially teachers in the early stages of their careers.
Those raises, Jefferson schools leaders have said, are necessary to bring the system more in line with what surrounding parishes offer. They could also help stem the tide of teacher attrition, which has left the system with several hundred slots to fill each year.
In 2017, a similar tax proposal was rejected by voters. BGR did not back that plan, saying that the school system appeared to have "rushed into this millage proposition without comprehensive research" and had showed "little evidence of a problem retaining employees other than early-career teachers."
This year's proposal is "a more well-developed pay raise proposal" than the 2017 measure, the group said.
BGR praised the plan to "boost teacher salaries to regionally competitive levels" and said that "current revenue sources are not sufficient" to cover the needed raises.
New teachers' salaries would rise to about $46,000 per year under the plan. Raises for more experienced teachers would be smaller, as those salaries are already competitive with surrounding parishes.
The total cost of the pay raise proposal is more than $33 million, BGR said. The school system will look for savings within its current budget to fund the $4 million not provided by the tax.
The new tax would cost a homeowner about $79 a year per $100,000 in taxable value above the homestead exemption, BGR's report said.
Jefferson schools Superintendent Cade Brumley said he was happy to get the BGR endorsement. "I'm pleased that such a well-respected organization has acknowledged what I already knew — this is a good plan to move Jefferson Parish forward," he said.
The pay millage is the first of two major millage increases that system leaders have said is needed. A second, similarly-sized millage to help fund improvements to the system's aging facilities was originally slated to be on the May 4 ballot as well but was delayed to give the pay-raise millage a better chance of passing.
The May 4 ballot measure has been endorsed by the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, Jefferson Business Council and Jefferson Federation of Teachers.
Early voting for the May 4 election begins April 20.