Property tax up for debate again

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s last shot at getting a property tax hike on the November ballot comes this legislative session. The mayor’s success could hinge on how much goodwill he’s built up between sessions.

For the second year in a row, state Rep. Walt Leger III has filed a proposed constitutional amendment to increase special ad valorem taxes in Orleans Parish. The rate for police protection would jump from 5 mills to 6 mills. The separate rate for fire protection also would increase from 5 mills to 6 mills.

Leger, D-New Orleans, said the 2-mill increases, combined, amount to an extra $30 a year in taxes on a $200,000 house. For the city, the increase would bring in an additional $5.9 million in 2015.

“The mayor wants it as an option. I’m filing it at his request,” Leger said.

The proposal entails a number of steps beyond simply moving it through the Legislature. A statewide vote on Nov. 4 followed by a vote of New Orleans electors also would be required.

First, though, Landrieu has to convince two-thirds of the legislators — 70 in the House and 26 in the Senate — to embrace the proposal.

Last year, the mayor’s legislative package included the property tax hike as well as a bid to reduce the number of juvenile judges in New Orleans. Landrieu — like others — thought the judicial downsizing bill would pass. Plans moved forward on a new courthouse that would accommodate only four courtrooms, not enough room for the existing six-judge setup.

The judge bill failed, however, and the property tax hike met a similar fate, dying in the Senate.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, who supports the tax increase, blames the failure on political spite. “There was a hit out on Mitch Landrieu bills, and unfortunately, that bill got caught in the crossfire,” Morrell, D-New Orleans, said Monday.

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, admits he’s had problems with Landrieu. Fights over pension legislation led Arnold to back Landrieu’s main campaign challenger after last year’s session ended. Landrieu won re-election earlier this month.

One of the issues in the election was the level of manpower at the Police Department. Landrieu’s main opponent said the department is hemorrhaging officers. Statistics on many violent crimes — including rape — rose in New Orleans last year compared to 2012.

“I was not with Mitch. But that’s over with. He won. He’s mayor,” Arnold said.

The real problem, Arnold said, is that Landrieu isn’t open to suggestions and doesn’t want to compromise.

“His approach to the Legislature is not always conducive to positive outcome for his agenda,” Arnold said.

A request to speak to Landrieu or an aide about the property tax proposal resulted in a prepared statement from the mayor’s spokesman.

“As we have in years past, this bill was filed at the request of the mayor,” said Tyler Gamble, Landrieu’s press secretary. “Public safety is our top priority.

“The bill would allow the city to put a proposal in front of New Orleans voters that would allow additional investments in the New Orleans Police and Fire Departments. This is one of several options on the table to strengthen the NOPD and to provide additional support to the NOFD as the city continues to review current revenue forecasts.”

Leger said the tax legislation simply ran out of time last year. The bill stalled in a Senate committee a few weeks before the session ended.

He said the proposal would enable the police and fire departments to hire personnel, purchase new equipment and tackle retirement costs. He said the City Council would determine how the added funds are spent.

“It’s a multistep process to provide some opportunity for the local government,” Leger said.

Morrell characterized last year’s tax increase bill as a political murder victim. He said a lot of the mayor’s legislative packaged died, and he is uncertain why.

“There was a lot of politics afoot,” he said.

Morrell said it is clear more money is needed, especially for the Police Department. He said the department needs competitive wages in order to recruit officers.

Arnold, leery of a past library tax under a previous administration, said he wants to see the budget numbers. He recalled when the city wanted a library tax increase. Once the increase passed, he said, the city added in the extra dollars and pulled out pre-existing money it was spending on libraries, making the tax hike a wash for the library’s budget.

This year’s legislation, House Bill 111, includes language that the additional revenues “shall not displace, replace or supplant funding by the city of New Orleans for fire and police protection for calendar year 2013.”

Leger said he believes the proposal has a shot because it deals with public safety.

Arnold is more pessimistic, saying many conservative legislators do not want to be on record as supporting a tax increase.

“You don’t have to be an uncompromising mayor of New Orleans to lose a tax election,” he said.