In The News › Eastern New Orleans tax, fee on November ballot

Eastern New Orleans tax, fee on November ballot

By Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune
July 23, 2012

Voters in most of eastern New Orleans will decide this fall whether to impose a $5 annual fee on all parcels of residential property to support the work of an alliance of neighborhood residential organizations. In addition, all New Orleans voters will be asked to revive a property tax in an eastern New Orleans business park that expired when voters rejected its renewal last year.

After some controversy over each proposal, the City Council decided this month by 7-0 and 5-2 votes to put both propositions on the Nov. 6 ballots.

The resolution calling the election on the property fee for the Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, or ENONAC, says the fee could be between $5 and $10 a year, but leaders of the commission have decided to seek only $5 to start.

The fee is projected to generate $371,000 a year. It would be in effect for four years and then could be renewed if voters agree. It would be imposed on every residentially zoned lot, including vacant ones, in the area of New Orleans east of the Industrial Canal and north of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The money would go to the advisory commission, an umbrella group encompassing about two dozen neighborhood organizations.

The commission’s political clout was shown in 2009 when the Legislature passed a law spelling out its right to “advise the governing authority, the mayor or any other agency … of local or state government with respect to all proposed matters of government policy which affect the area, “ including decisions regarding “planning, zoning, streets, recreation, social services programs, education, health, safety, budget and sanitation.”

The law forbade the city to change any zoning rules or designations for the East without giving prior notice to the commission, and it required city officials to notify the commission “of any application for a building permit for a multifamily development, commercial development or large development within the commission area.”

Despite its extensive powers, the commission has not had any paid staff; all work is done by volunteers. The proposed fee would give it the money to hire a full-time administrator and a secretary, and ENONAC leaders such as Sylvia Scineaux-Richard and Dana Henry said that staff would help the group protect the quality of life of all eastern New Orleans residents.

But a few neighborhood leaders challenged the proposal. Alicia Plummer called ENONAC a “cliquish type of situation” that represents fewer than half of the homeowner associations in the East, and Jerrelda Drummer Sanders said the fee proposal was “unfair” and “underhanded” because individual associations had not been consulted about it.

ENONAC leader Joan Heisser dismissed he critics as “a few crabs in the barrel.”

Councilman Jon Johnson, who at the time represented most of eastern New Orleans, said he was not taking a position on the fee but wanted to give residents the right to vote on it. The resolution calling the election passed 7-0, with a requirement that ENONAC leaders hold at least two public meetings before Nov. 6 to explain the fee and how the money would be used.

Johnson has since resigned after pleading guilty to steering federal rebuilding grants to a political campaign.

The second measure before the council was to put back before voters a proposal to renew a special property tax levied only on commercial and industrial property within the 7,000-acre New Orleans Regional Business Park.

Voters last year rejected a proposal to let the business park continue to levy a 20-mill tax on commercial and industrial property within its boundaries for another 20 years. Residential property is exempt. Although the tax is levied only within the district, it is subject to a citywide vote.

Despite last year’s defeat, the business park has remained in existence, though reduced in scale. The tax millage provided about one-third of its annual $600,000 budget.

The Legislature created the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District — known since 2004 as the New Orleans Regional Business Park — in 1979 to stimulate industrial and commercial development in the vast area bounded by the CSX Railroad tracks, Industrial Canal, Intracoastal Waterway and Maxent Canal.

There are nearly 2,000 property taxpayers in the district, but most own small plots of vacant land. Most of the district’s tax money comes from its 70 or so businesses. In 2011, the two largest taxpayers, Folgers Coffee Co. and Entergy, paid 28 percent of the taxes, and the top 15 paid 60 percent of the taxes.

To its backers, the business park can be one of the city’s most important tools for promoting economic development. Johnson, whose former district includes the park, championed its cause, last year calling it a “treasure” that provides “great services” to the businesses within its borders and has “unlimited potential” for spurring further economic growth in New Orleans. If the city’s economy is to grow significantly, he said, the business park is where the growth will take place.

But to its critics, the park has failed for 30 years to prove that its potential can be turned into reality. Instead, it has been the subject of frequent unfavorable publicity because of management turmoil, political squabbles and ethical problems.

The Bureau of Governmental Research said last year that, despite the park’s seemingly strategic location, it has always struggled to attract new businesses, and success stories such as Folgers have been few.

Councilwomen Susan Guidry and Stacy Head asked why voters should be asked again so soon to approve a tax they rejected a year ago. Joseph Shorter III, the park’s executive director since February, replied that the previous election attracted a very small turnout and the measure might do better with the higher turnout expected Nov. 6.

Guidry and Head also said they wanted to hear how the businesses in the park feel about having the 20-mill tax revived. Johnson said that if the business owners opposed the measure, he probably would have heard from them, and he had not.
The measure to put the tax referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot passed 5-2, with Guidry and Head opposed.

Johnson’s resignation removes the park’s highest-profile supporter in city government, and the tax measure’s fate could depend on whether Mayor Mitch Landrieu decides to support it.

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