Controversy mounts over Jeff water, sewerage tax propositions

Controversy continues to swirl around what seemed to be a routine property tax renewal in Jefferson Parish, as Council Chairman Chris Roberts said Wednesday that he believes if voters adopt the renewal Saturday, their taxes are required to increase.

Roberts waded into the debate between Parish President John Young’s administration and Assessor Tom Capella about an upcoming vote on property tax millages for water and sewerage in an email to his fellow board members. In that missive, Roberts said that after reading a story in The Advocate about the renewal, he decided to investigate whether the council really had the ability to set the millage at less than the 5-mill maximum voters could approve.

Roberts said he discovered that the council does not have that ability, and if the renewal passes, the council could only set the millage at the 5-mill level. That directly contradicts comments by parish Finance Director Tim Palmatier, who said earlier this week that the council could set the millages anywhere “up to” 5 mills.

“That’s not even an option according to what I’m told,” Roberts said.

Whether Saturday’s vote represents a tax renewal or tax increase became a hot- button issue recently when Capella’s office sent out a mailer to residents warning them that a vote for the millages would increase their property taxes.

Capella said both the water and sewerage millages would increase by more than a full mill and could generate more than $8 million in additional revenue. Based on figures provided by the state, the two millages would generate about $27 million in total revenue if approved at the 5-mill level.

But Palmatier has said Capella is wrong and the millages only reauthorize a maximum amount for the millages. He said it’s up to the Parish Council to decide where to actually set the property tax rates. Palmatier also said the parish administration was not seeking a tax increase.

However, at least one resident accused the parish of misleading voters about the level of the current millage and what Saturday’s vote would do in a postcard sent to homes. Parish Public Works Director Kazem Alikhani said that mailer contained some inaccurate information, but it was a mistake.

According to the language for the propositions on the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website, the millages would “continue the levy and collection of a tax of five mills on the dollar on all property subject to taxation in the district…” The ballot language does not include the phrase “up to” at any point.

Kris Fortunato, a parish spokeswoman, said the parish’s bond counsel has said the council has the ability to roll back the millage, but an attempt to reach that attorney for comment by deadline was unsuccessful.

Roberts said that if the council knew the millages were increases rather than simply renewals, they might have handled the situation differently. The administration provided the ballot language to the council for approval, and the board simply approved it, Roberts said.

“That’s never been how it was presented to us,” Roberts said. “I don’t think that was ever the council’s intent.”

Roberts acknowledged that renewing the millages is a top priority for the parish because they are essential to maintaining and improving the parish’s infrastructure. Alikhani said the millages represent about a third of the water and sewerage departments’ budgets. However, he also acknowledged that residents react very differently to tax renewals than they do to tax increases, and there is a possibility that the millages could be voted down.

They are joined on the ballot by millage renewals for the Fire Protection District No. 5 and the Jefferson Parish School as well as a proposition renewing the Crescent City Connection tolls.

If the millages are rejected by residents, the parish administration would have to correct the problematic language and then receive permission from the state to place the measures on the ballot again. The next available date would be in October. Both millages are for 10-year renewals of the millages.