Saying the people of St. Charles Parish have been heard “loud and clear” about not raising taxes, Parish President Larry Cochran got council support for an amended property tax rate hike only for levees, road maintenance and recreation.
“This administration listened,” Cochran said at Monday’s council meeting. “We’re not adjusting all of them moving forward.”
Council members voted unanimously in favor of the limited tax rate hike. Councilwoman Julia Fisher-Perrier abstained from voting because of family land interests with Arc of St. Charles, which is one of the tax recipients.
“We’re listening to the people and cutting,” Cochran told council members. “I hear them loud and clear.”
Next year’s parish property taxes for levees will increase from 4 to 4.07 mills; road maintenance, 5.94 mills to 6.04 mills; and recreation, 2.97 mills to 3.02 mills.
Other tax recipients will remain at 2015 millage rates that will generate less revenue for the parish’s general fund. Those include road lighting, St. Charles Parish Library, mosquito control, Council on Aging, fire protection, E-911, the Health Unit, Arc of St. Charles and wastewater facilities.
The projected budget shortfall for them next year is $300,000.
Chief Financial Officer Grant Dussom said residents will see a .22 mill increase.
A $200,000 residence would pay an additional $2.75 a year.Dussom called it an “anomaly” in that raising the rate would only maintain last year’s level of funding, not generate new revenue.
Legally, the council can raise the tax to maintain the previous year’s funding, but instead narrowed the increase for the three areas chosen as a compromise when constituents challenged paying more taxes.
The parish, like the state of Louisiana dealing with an intense budget crunch, is feeling the hit from the oil industry downturn.
The shortfall was blamed on a projected 2 percent decline in a major source of parish funding called the inventory tax. It represents 23 percent of this year’s tax revenue for the parish, but plummeting oil prices has made this major component of inventory generate less tax revenue.
Cochran told the council that he also has been working with Chief Administrative Officer Billy Raymond and department heads to cut cost, such as reducing or eliminating overtime, to buffer and potentially maintain a surplus despite a financially challenging 2017.
The parish president said he’s also been meeting with the entities that will contend with less revenue next year and they’ve agreed to tighten their belts to deal with a tighter budget.
Library Director Leann Benedict said no rate increase “will be a stretch for us.”
Benedict said the library has sufficient funds to complete the $1.8 million renovation of the West Regional Library and cover a $30,734 charge order for additions to the project that also was approved Monday.
A Norco library also was planned this year, but it was suggested that it wait until finances improve.
“If needed, we will make do with belt tightening,” Benedict told the council. She added they would support the council’s decision.
The council’s vote to pare down the tax adjustment for certain needs came after a litany of appeals from parish residents not to increase taxes.
“We need to look within before we go to the taxpayers for more money,” David Wedge of Des Allemands said after itemizing several parish expenditures that he felt could have waited, such as additional hiring and purchasing new vehicles. “This is our money – I’m running out.”
Milton Allemand of Hahnville agreed with maintaining funding for levees, as well as the parish being allowed to adjust the tax rates to ensure the parish doesn’t default on bonds, but disagreed with a tax increase.
Allemand questioned passing on the “tax burden to the working man and woman.” He added, “You need more – go to the public and let them vote on it.”
Councilwoman Traci Fletcher asked if the council approved the rate hike whether it would go to the people for a vote and was told council approval was all that was necessary to pass the measure.
But Allemand maintained the constitution restricted the parish from increasing property taxes without public approval.
Dussom stated the council can legally maintain the previous year’s tax funding and that the rates were set by the state Legislative Auditor.
Kurt Stevens of New Sarpy also questioned parish government expenditures on new projects.
“We’d like to pay less taxes,” Stevens said. “We are not a bottomless well.”
But he also supported continued funding for levees and wastewater.
David Simon of Destrehan thanked Cochran for cost saving measures such as not changing the parish logo. But Simon also called for cost cutting over increasing taxes particularly when he’s getting a 9 percent hike in his property taxes from this year’s property tax reassessment.
“Not everything is essential,” Simon told the council. “Find the money through efficiency or prioritizing the projects.”