Jefferson officials weigh options following defeat of millages

Jefferson Parish officials are still searching for their next move after voters shot down two millages Saturday that pay for roughly a third of the budgets for the parish’s water and sewerage departments.

Saturday’s loss came after a disagreement between parish politicians transformed a fairly mundane tax renewal into a hot-button issue that included attorney opinions and long email strings.

By defeating the millages, which could have provided about $12.3 million for sewerage and $14.8 million for water, voters now force politicians to either make a better case for the taxes or slice budgets to deal with the loss of revenue.

The property taxes will not be collected this year because they expired in 2012 and will not be collected moving forward without a renewal, Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts said.

Roberts said the council is in no rush to put the millages back before voters and instead he wants the administration to present an updated budget that does not include the funding.

While he acknowledged $27 million is a lot of money to make up, he expects that if the parish trims some other departments, particularly the Parish Attorney’s Office, it can find a way to reduce the impact of the lost revenue.

Most of the money in the water department is used for capital projects, while the sewerage funds also help pay for operations, he said.

“I think it would be premature to assume the council is going to put this item back on the ballot. … I don’t see this council rushing to go put this back on the ballot at this time” Roberts said. “I think there potentially could be other areas that could be cut to support it. … I am becoming concerned that the parish budget has become bloated.”

Parish President John Young said in a prepared statement that his administration plans to meet with the council to discuss the next steps needed.

“We are reviewing all of our options at this point. We will be meeting with all members of the Jefferson Parish Council to discuss those options, including placing the renewals back onto the ballot this fall,” Young wrote. The next available election would be in October.

The millages’ failure can be tied to a host of factors including voters’ reluctance to embrace any taxes given a tough economic climate. A property tax millage for the Jefferson Parish School Board also failed, while a millage that supports Fire Protection District 5 passed.

However, officials pointed to two main challenges for the millages: They shared the ballot with the wildly unpopular Crescent City Connection toll renewal and there was confusion about whether the millages were simply renewals or tax increases.

The latter issue arose when Jefferson Parish Assessor Tom Capella sent a mailer to property owners April 19 that labeled the millages as tax increases, not renewals. Capella’s letter said the propositions would set the property taxes at 5 mills each, an increase over the current rate of 3.54 mills for water and 3.58 mills for sewerage.

Young’s administration denied that claim and said any increase would require council action. However, a postcard from the administration about the millages contained errors, and Roberts later said he wasn’t sure if the council would have the ability to reduce the tax rate as Young claimed.

Capella said he sent out the mailer because that’s his standard procedure any time there is a tax issue on the ballot. He remained adamant that what Young’s administration proposed would have increased taxes.

“I did not take a position on the elections. As assessor, it’s my job to let people know if there’s something that can impact their taxes,” Capella said. “If those millages were collected, they would have been collected at 5 mills.”

Roberts chided Young for failing to adequately make the case to the public for the millages. He said he’s received complaints from residents and business leaders that they were never contacted about what was going on.

“It’s quite surprising that in 40-plus years this is the first renewal that has not passed,” Roberts said.

However, Parish Public Information Director Kris Fortunato said the parish created an informational video on the renewals, sent out postcards, posted notices online and at parish buildings, and sent out letters to civic associations. She said the same procedure was followed for this renewal as was followed for the previous two that came up during Young’s tenure and were passed.

Roberts said that at this point the council will wait to see what plan Young presents before it commits to any action. He said it’s Young’s job to lead moving forward.

“We’re waiting for a plan from the parish president,” he said. “I think we’re kind of of the opinion that we weren’t engaged before now, so don’t look to us to come up with a quick fix.”