La. voters to decide measure that affects N.O. police, firefighters

FOX 8 photo
FOX 8 photo

Unless you live in Orleans Parish it doesn't cost you a penny, but voters around the state will get to vote on a Constitutional amendment this fall that involves a special property tax for New Orleans police and firefighters.

In a city that continues to struggle to shake violent crime, concerns about the number of police are constant.

"The city's top priority is fighting crime," said New Orleans Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.

Firefighters also provide critical life- and property-saving services every day. Soon, voters around the state will weigh in on whether New Orleans city government can consider more avenues for generating additional funds for police and firefighter salaries and equipment.

"The Constitution has a specific provision as it relates to Orleans Parish and our ability to levy property taxes for police and fire protection," said State House Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

Already there are two different millages dedicated to the city's police and fire services, but the one in question falls outside the statewide homestead exemption of $75,000. Under the special tax, 5.26 mills are dedicated to the police services, another 5.21 mills are for fire.

The proposed amendment that would give the city the option of seeking to raise the cap to 10 mills needs a majority of voters statewide, as well as a majority of the electorate in New Orleans to vote "yes" in order to pass.

Leger said the fight in the Legislature to get the amendment on the ballot.

"A vote for this is not a vote for a property tax," he said in explaining the measure.

That is because even if voters statewide approve the amendment, the city council would still need to go back to New Orleans voters.

"Really this vote on Nov. 4 for this Constitutional amendment is to give the City of New Orleans permission to ask our voters locally whether they want to in a later election impose a property tax increase dedicated to police, or fire," said Kopplin.

To be sure, City Hall's bank account is being squeezed because of dueling police and parish prison federal consent decrees. Courts also say the city owes millions to the firefighters' pension fund.

"I understand the city has got some big financial problems, and I understand why the mayor is doing this," said UNO Economist Walter Lane, Ph.D.

But Lane said higher property taxes could also work against the city by discouraging people from becoming homeowners at a time when property values are on a roll.

"It's been a good story for New Orleans recently is that, you know, the real estate market is really strong. And again, anything - you raise taxes will slow it down," Lane said.

He said businesses that may be eyeing New Orleans for expansion or relocation also look closely at taxes, both sales and property.

"It's a negative, there's no doubt about it that taxes are a negative," said Lane.

"A lot of folks want to see us grow the police department back to its pre-Katrina levels, well, it's going to take more money, so at some point we may ask the voters to consider whether they want to make that investment," stated Kopplin.

Kopplin said the special tax at its current level of mills generates about $16.5 million annually for the police department and about the same for the fire services.

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