In The News › $5.5 million tax hike for flood protection on West Jefferson ballot

$5.5 million tax hike for flood protection on West Jefferson ballot

By Andrea Shaw | The Times-Picayune

November 13, 2015

For the West Bank, Hurricane Katrina did what Tropical Storm Frances could not. The 2005 hurricane brought cash to a decades-old flood protection plan for a community that largely escaped the disaster seen on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Seven years earlier during Frances, however, frantic public workers and jail inmates had plugged gaping holes with sand bags and riprap when the swollen Harvey Canal came within inches of topping its banks. It was a scene repeated with Hurricane Rita in 2005, just weeks after Katrina.

Had the worst-case scenario played out, much of the West Bank from Algiers to Avondale would have been inundated. Makeshift levees stood only 5 to 8 feet high at most.

“All we had was an agreement and hope. We had an agreement with the (Army) Corps of Engineers to build it. We had to hope they would give us enough money for construction,’‘ said Ron Besson, former president of the West Jefferson Levee District, the precursor to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West. “The only reason we have what we have today is Katrina. The corps dumped millions of dollars into flood protection they would never have done had Katrina not happened.’‘

Indeed, a $4 billion system to protect the area from a “100-year storm” was completed in 2013 and turned over to the levee authority. Comprised of 80 miles of levees, floodwalls, floodgates and drainage pump stations, including the largest in the world, the network was built and mostly funded by the federal government.

But with $34 million in operational costs looming, the agency is asking West Jefferson voters for a $5.5 million property tax increase, and Algiers voters to renew a property tax that brings in $1.2 million. Both measures on the Nov. 21 ballot, for which early voting ends Saturday (Nov. 14).

Susan Maclay, president of the levee authority’s board of commissioners, said the money is needed to pay for a system that is four times larger than before Katrina and that contains expensive, complex mechanical systems critical to protecting tens of thousands of homes and businesses. “This was a wonderful gift from the taxpayers across the country. Now it’s up to us to be good stewards of this wonderful gift,’‘ she said.

If West Jefferson voters approve the additional 5.5 mills, the owner of a $175,000 home, with a homestead exemption, would pay a total $105 a year for flood protection. In Algiers, renewal of the 6.35 mill-tax would contine to cost costhe owner of a $175,000 house $63.50 annually. Both taxes would be assessed for 30 years.

Rejection of the taxes would plunge the authority into a deficit, halt work to raise subsiding levees and result in a loss of federal certification, officials say. That would mean higher flood insurance costs for homeowners. “Having the levee system in place allows us to enter the nationally federally subsidized flood insurance program,’‘ said John Monzon, the levee authority’s regional director.

West Jefferson property owners currently pay 5.03 mills for flood protection. The millage was set in 1980 after the West Jefferson Levee District became an independent entity a year earlier. The tax has not been raised since then.

The agency, which managed 22 miles of levees along the Mississippi River and a few “back’‘ levees, had a $2 million-a-year budget, Besson said. “They were mud hills the parish did over the years,’‘ he said. “We tried to maintain and fix them as much as we could.’

The river levees were woefully deficient, and there was no protection on the West Bank’s southern end, especially along the east side of the Harvey Canal, Besson said. With 3- to 5-foot-high berms, the community’s ability to handle even a Category 1 hurricane was in doubt.

Prompted by Hurricane Juan six years earlier, work began in 1991 on a levee between Westwego and Harvey Canal. The project was expanded to include Avondale, Bridge City and Waggaman, as well as the communities east of the Harvey Canal such as Gretna and Harvey.

Tropical Storm Frances in 1998 accelerated the work until problems arose with funding. But Katrina and Rita put the project back on a fast track with what the Corps of Engineers calls the West Bank and Vicinity Project. Completed in 2013, the $4.2 billion system protects the area from storms with a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year.

The effort also widened most 200-foot levees to 700 feet and raised them to 12 feet or more. A 3½-mile, 14-foot high floodwall was erected along the east side of Harvey Canal, and a pump station is under construction. A drainage pump station was built near Bayou Segnette State Park to keep Westwego dry.

The linchpin of the system is the monolithic $1.1 billion West Closure Complex in Belle Chasse. Located at the confluence of the Harvey and Algiers canals, it is the first line of defense. Its purpose is to block storm surge from rushing up those two waterways and flooding most of the West Bank.

A year ago, the levee authority inherited the West Closure Complex after a dispute over a cost-sharing agreement among government agencies. The state attorney general’s office concluded that the West Bank levee board, Plaquemines and St. Charles Parish were responsible for its annual operations, which could run as high as $4 million.

Another goal of the levee authority is to lift its levees, or make them taller, by adding clay three times in the next 30 years. The work, Monzon said, is necessary in order to maintain the 100-year level of protection and federal certification. Many are already subsiding.

That cost will be $26 million in the next two years and must be done to prepare the levees for armoring. The Army Corps of Engineers is paying to fortify the berms with a geosynthetic mat and sod to lessen erosion.

Maclay said the authority chose to raise the levees before armoring to save money. Armoring without raising the levees would cost the authority almost $50 million. “It’s more expensive to armor one mile of levee than it is to lift one mile of levee,’‘ she said.

To prepare for the tax referendum, West Bank levee authority officials have been meeting with residents to educate them about the flood protection system. With new taxes a tough sell in Jefferson Parish — and St. Bernard Parish residents rejecting flood protection taxes twice — the West Bank authority’s campaign began over the summer.

Yet in recent weeks, rumblings of opposition have become public. State Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, questioned increases in the levee authority’s salaries, benefits and outside services, including attorneys’ fees.

“Business owners and homeowners will be the ones who will be hit hardest if the 30-year proposed millage increase is passed,’‘ Connick wrote in a letter to Maclay and Monzon. “As you can imagine, they have a heightened interest in the outcome of this election.’‘

The levee authority contracts for professional services as needed, Maclay said. The authority spent $570,000 on professional services last fiscal year and has proposed $574,000 in its current spending plan, she said.

Even Besson admits he is torn and is likely to vote against the tax increase. He cited what he called excessive expenses that have little to do with flood fighting: $200,000 for attorneys’ fees and $3 million for salaries and benefits for the authority’s 50 employees.

“I am very confident what we have now is very good protection. I realize we have to maintain it,’‘ Besson said. “I’m in favor of giving the district the money they need to do it. I’m not in favor of wasting the money on things other than flood protection.’‘

Maclay defended the agency’s budget, calling the authority “a superb steward of the public’s trust.’‘ She stressed most of the budget is used “directly’‘ for or in support of hurricane protection.

“While it is true that the overall budget of the authority has increased, we have four times the responsibility and a vastly improved and far more complex system from the pre-Katrina era, which is the primary reason that we have requested funding for the long-term protection of lives and property on the West Bank,’‘ Maclay said.

She also took issue with arguments that the authority spent too much on salaries and benefits. “Establishing a stable organization with qualified management and a well-trained team of levee and flood protection staff who can serve the authority with career paths for success is crucial to ensuring the integrity of the system and public safety,” Maclay said.

Both the West Jefferson and Algiers measures have support from the Bureau of Governmental Research. “Should voters reject the millage, maintenance of levees and infrastructure will suffer and levee improvements will go unfunded, increasing the risk of flooding and likely resulting in higher flood insurance rates,’‘ the non-profit watchdog said.

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