Jefferson Parish Council votes to send tax proposals back to voters

JEFFERSON PARISH — After weeks of casting blame and debating what to do next, the Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday decided to send two property tax millages back to voters after they were roundly rejected at the ballot box earlier this month.

As they had hinted they might do for days, council members authorized a request from Parish President John Young to call a special election and approved an extensive public information campaign to educate voters on the importance of the millages, which generate money for the parish’s water and sewerage departments. The election is slated for October 19.

Young called the taxes essential not only to maintaining current services but in securing low-interest loans for future improvements. Parish officials have estimated that roughly $70 million in total funding could be lost without the millages.

“It is important to stress that the best result for our citizens will come from the council and administration working together concerning these millage renewals,” Young wrote in his proposal.

In fact, the only real controversy was whether voters should be asked to approve the full 5 mills that was previously authorized or 3.54 mills for water and 3.58 mills for sewerage that was actually being levied. The council ultimately decided to put the lower tax rates on the ballot.

Council members Ben Zahn, Ricky Templet, Paul Johnston and Cynthia Lee Sheng supported the lower rates, while Elton Lagasse, Mark Spears and Chris Roberts endorsed the higher one.

Administration officials argued that the full 5 mills would give the parish the ability to easily handle emergencies, make improvements to its infrastructure and protect against any dips in property values, said Kazem Alikhani, the parish’s public works director.

But Lee Sheng said that residents made their feelings clear May 4 that they will not approve the 5 mills.

“The voters have spoken,” she said.

Even if the taxes are passed at the 5-mill rate the council has the ability to reduce them to the current levels, but that has never happened in Jefferson Parish’s history.

In the past, a millage renewal resulted in a windfall for the parish until properties were reassessed and tax rates reduced. At the 5-mill level, the parish would collect about $6 million in additional revenue, and the next parishwide property reassessment isn’t scheduled until 2016.

Margie Seeman and Richard Brown, members of two separate watchdog groups in the parish, said residents were not deceived by claims that this month’s election did not represent a tax increase.

“If our government only wants to collect millages at the current level it should only approve millages at their current level ... There is absolutely no advantage to the citizens of Jefferson for approving the millages at up to 5 mills,” Seeman said.

Tony Ligi, the president of the Jefferson Business Council, also urged the council to approve the millages at their current level.

“We may not always agree with the administration. We may not always agree with the council. But I believe strongly that this administration and council have done all they can to restore confidence from the public,” Ligi said.

Although officials cannot advocate for the passage of the taxes, they can explain what parish services would be affected if the taxes are not approved.