Jefferson officials scramble to address fallout of tax vote
“I don’t know if there’s any basis in law to declare ‘I’m incompetent and I messed up the tax issue, so give me another bite at the apple.’ In my 36 years of government work, this is the first time I’m aware of that a tax renewal was done after the tax expired.” Sheriff Newell NormanD, Jefferson Parish
Elmwood — The Jefferson Parish Council will meet Thursday to discuss the fate of two property tax millages that were shot down Saturday and have caused behind-the-scenes turmoil ever since.
Parish Council members requested the meeting Tuesday, and it is set for 10 a.m. at the Joseph S. Yenni building in Elmwood, according to Kris Fortunato, a parish spokeswoman. The only item on the agenda is a discussion of the property tax millages for water and sewerage.
Those millages have morphed into the dominant issue in Jefferson Parish after their somewhat surprising defeat by voters. Parish officials were seeking the authority to levy the millages for 10 years to help pay for costs in the parish’s water and sewerage departments. The money was slated to be used for operations, maintenance and capital improvements, and parish officials say the millages represented about a third of each department’s budget.
There has been disagreement about exactly how much revenue the millages would have generated if they were passed because of differing opinions on the tax rate they would have established. Parish President John Young’s administration has said the millages only renewed the property tax rates at 3.54 mills for water and 3.58 mills for sewerage. However, Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts, Sheriff Newell Normand and Assessor Thomas Capella say the millages would have increased the tax rate to 5 mills.
At the current rate, the millages produce about $22 million according to Roberts, but at 5 mills they would have produced roughly $28 million. At the lower rate, the water and sewer millages cost a residential property owner with property valued at $100,000 a total $17.70. At the 5-mill rate, the cost would be $25.
This week even more issues popped up. Roberts challenged the possibility of placing the millages on the October ballot, and Normand said that if he does not receive the tax rolls by Nov. 15, he does not feel he can fairly collect taxes. In addition, Roberts has continued to question the administration’s handling of the millages, including public outreach and general financial monitoring.
In an email, Roberts expressed concern about calling an emergency election because of the logistics involved. The parish would need an emergency election because the Louisiana constitution prohibits putting tax measures back on the ballot within six months of their defeat. Without an emergency election, the earliest the parish could put the referendums on the ballot would be after Normand’s deadline.
But Roberts wrote that calling an emergency referendum presents several challenges, including certifying the election results, getting the tax rolls submitted to the state and printing and mailing tax bills on time. He wants to discuss all of those issues with the administration.
“… Based on the information provided to me during conversations with the tax assessor and the tax collector, I do not intend to support a request for an emergency vote on this matter,” Roberts wrote in an email to Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Cox on Tuesday morning.
Normand, whose office handles all property tax collection in the parish, said a delay in the delivery of the tax rolls would make it extremely difficult to get tax bills delivered to residents in time for them to pay before Dec. 31. Late payments would then be assessed interest and delinquent fees because those fees cannot be waived, Normand added. He also said that every other parish agency would have to delay the collection of their revenue because all of the property taxes are calculated at the same time.
“That’s a mess,” Normand said. “I don’t particularly think that’s fair to the taxpayer … If there’s a delay then everybody gets delayed.”
Normand said he has his attorneys examining his legal options, and the parish administration, council and assessor’s office are also seeking legal opinions on how to move forward. In addition, Normand raised the concern about whether Saturday’s election was truly a renewal since the taxes under consideration already expired at the end of 2012.
Normand said he’s not even certain the situation justifies an emergency election, claiming that it appears someone in the parish “fell asleep at the wheel.”
Louisiana’s election code allows individual governing bodies to create their own definitions of an emergency, but they must receive approval from a super-majority of the Louisiana Bond Commission and the governor to actually hold the election. Normand said parish officials should have begun talking to the public well in advance of the expiration of the taxes.
“I don’t know if there’s any basis in law to declare ‘I’m incompetent and I messed up the tax issue, so give me another bite at the apple,’ ” Normand said. “In my 36 years of government work, this is the first time I’m aware of that a tax renewal was done after the tax expired.”