Despite an intense debate over whether a proposed 4-mill tax for levees was ready for the ballot, the St. Charles Parish Council unanimously voted to “let the people decide” the measure in May.
Chief Administrative Officer Buddy Boe said the proposed property tax would generate $4.8 million a year for 30 years from 2015 to 2044. By issuing bonds, he anticipated generating an estimated $157 million for levee construction.“We don’t build a system, we flood,” Boe said. “We need to act rather than wait on hopes and prayers.”
The proposal calls for 3.6 mills in new taxes with the difference from a .4-mill reduction in a road lighting millage. The new millage alone would add $36 a year to a homeowner’s property taxes, which Boe compared to less than the cost of a tank of gas for a levee system.
Parish President V.J. St. Pierre Jr. thanked council members for the vote at Monday’s council meeting, calling it an important step toward the parish’s future growth. St. Pierre said he welcomed the opportunity to educate residents on the necessity and importance of funding the West Bank levee system.
When voters go to the polls for the May 2 special election, they also will consider a 2.2-mill tax renewal for wastewater facilities and systems, as well as a .7-mill tax for the Arc of St. Charles.
Saying “closing the doors is possible,” the Arc of St. Charles outlined how it needed a .7-mill tax to deal with what Executive Director Victoria Bryant called, “a dire situation.” If voters approve, the 10-year tax would provide $843,000 a year beginning in 2015 through 2024.
Boe said an equally dire situation exists with the parish’s Public Works Department, who appealed to council members to place a 2.2-mill tax on the May ballot for renewal.
“We currently have no money for capital expenses,” he said.The tax renewal is needed to deal with a growing deficit since 2008. The funding problems are partially based on the current millage being less than what was received in 1999, when the tax was 6.92 mills.
If voters approve carrying over the tax, which is scheduled to end in 2015, it would generate $2.6 million a year, also for 30 years. The current tax is being used to pay for wastewater bonds. The average homeowner who uses 4,700 gallons is paying $6.78 per 1,000 gallons in sewer fees. Putting three property tax measures on the ballot drew criticism by some council members, who expressed concern that voters might feel overwhelmed and kill all three taxes.“We might have one shot at this,” said Councilwoman Julia Fisher-Perrier, who asked to delay a referendum on the measure to make it more specific.
Councilwoman Wendy Benedetto agreed, saying she wanted more time to generate public awareness.
Councilman Larry Cochran asked that the measure be held until the October election to get a more detailed plan. He also questioned pushing the new millage tax so soon after a sewer rate increase.
“Why rush it up and possibly get a ‘no’ vote?” he asked.But Boe replied, “We’ve got areas right now with zero protection” and another hurricane season is coming. He estimated 45 percent of St. Charles residents have no protection. “We all know we’ve got to build it.”Councilman Paul Hogan agreed, saying the parish was out of money for flood control and also urged fellow council members to support putting the levee tax up for a vote in May.
“The people will make the call,” Hogan said.
Members of the public who attended the meeting also supported taking immediate action.
Area resident Robert Taylor said he wasn’t happy with the levee tax proposal until he saw Boe’s presentation and how the money would be spent, but now he’s supporting the move.“We’ve got to do something,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to spend more money, but I don’t want to lose my home. Don’t wait until November – do something.”
Rick Dupont of Destrehan was equally supportive of the measure.
“ We’re in the levee business whether we like it or not,” Dupont said. “We can’t wait on Washington [D.C.] to make an informed decision.”
Sam Scholle, the parish’s public works director, appealed to the council as a resident, asking they act now on taking this plan and the parish into the future.