In The News › St. Bernard tax defeat means higher flood risk, flood insurance rates, levee leaders warn

May 4, 2015

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Levees, On the Ballot, Taxes

St. Bernard tax defeat means higher flood risk, flood insurance rates, levee leaders warn

By Mark Schleifstein

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

May 4, 2015

The defeat of a property tax increase by St. Bernard Parish voters on Saturday (May 2) will result in a reduction in flood protection preparedness for the 2015 hurricane season and during heavy rainfall events in the parish, levee officials warned on Monday (May 4).

The increase would have produced an additional $2.5 million a year for the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, money that district officials said was needed to pay for large increases in maintenance costs for the rebuilt, post-Katrina levee system. In addition to the levee system, the district also operates St. Bernard’s internal drainage system.

“Apathy, reflected in the low voter turnout, and unwillingness by St. Bernard citizens to pay for flood protection is clear,” said Steve Estopinal, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The authority oversees the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, which requested the tax increase.

“Saturday’s vote was a verification of public will. Certainly, we are disappointed about the outcome, but we must move forward. Our next step is to bring the levee district’s operations in line with our revenue,” Estopinal said.

Lake Borgne district Executive Director Nick Cali said residents “will immediately see a diminished readiness for the 2015 hurricane season and an increased potential for localized flooding during heavy rainfall, similar to what occurred last week, when the parish experienced the effects of a spring rain weather event,” according to a statement released by the levee authority and levee district.

The statement also warned of “significant flood insurance rate increases” that would result from the levee district’s failure to comply with federal standards for the levee system.

“Unfortunately, they want us to operate an improved and expanded Post-Katrina flood protection system with pre-Katrina dollars,” Cali said, referring to the tax increase defeat.

“We may be forced to reduce staff and pumping capabilities, which may result in street flooding during rain events,” he said. “The Lake Borgne Basin Levee District has a legal responsibility to maintain and operate the new federal system. The failure of this millage, will require the Levee District to take drastic measures to meet that obligation.”

The statement did not specify what actions the two agencies would take to deal with what they contend will be a $2.5 million a year shortfall in revenue, the same as what the tax increase would have collected.

The levee district now receives money from three property taxes — a permanent 3.83-mill tax, a 4.27-mill tax expiring in 2020, and a 3-mill tax expiring in 2044, resulting in a present tax rate of 11.1 mills. The proposal Saturday sought an additional 7.5 mills.

The existing tax rates combined produced $3.4 million of the district’s $3.8 million in revenue in 2014, but the district’s expenses were about $4.3 million. The district used reserve funds to make up the difference, the third year it has done so.

The shortfall is expected to go up beginning this year because of increased maintenance costs resulting from the turnover of the completed hurricane levees to the district by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In a pre-election report, the Bureau of Governmental Research noted that levee district officials said a failure of the tax increase would result in an immediate reduction in its staff from the current 30 employees to 21 or 22.

“The impact of the cuts will fall mainly on the drainage system,” the report said. “Two of the pump stations that are manned around the clock will be manned for fewer hours and may be closed until needed. This could lead to delays in pumping and an increased risk of flooding within the parish.”

BGR also cited levee officials warning that even without an increase in flooding, cutting pump station operations could lead to higher flood insurance rates.

The BGR report also said the reductions would include less frequent mowing of canal banks and removal of debris from canals.

The lack of additional revenue also will lead to a reduction in maintenance, increased capital repair costs and deterioration of infrastructure, the report said. It also won’t have money to set aside for required 10-year maintenance of the new Bayou Dupre and Caernarvon Canal navigation flood gates, each of which will cost at least $1.5 million.

The tax increase also was needed to help repay a loan that the Orleans Levee District was to make to the Lake Borgne district to assist in the construction of a $4 milliion floodwall near the Violet Canal to allow the combined Florida Avenue-40 Arpent levee system to be certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as withstanding flooding.

Levee officials contend that without the completion of that wall and the certification, flood insurance rates would rise dramatically in St. Bernard and the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, and new homes in those areas would have to be built to much higher base flood elevations.

St. Bernard Parish President Dave Peralta agreed that the lack of funding resulting from the failure of the tax increase will cause problems.

“The flood insurance will be a lot more for us all than if we had increased the millage,” Peralta said. “If maintenance is not performed on the systems as it has to be and you don’t keep up with that maintenance, then that is when you will see increases in ratings and dramatic increases in flood insurance.”

“I really thought it would pass this time, that people would see the need for this millage. But, I think people just saw this as increasing the taxes,” Peralta said. “Sometime we don’t look at stuff 10, 15, 20 years down the road. But sometimes you have to.”

Peralta said the parish government just doesn’t have the funds or staffing to take over any of the drainage responsibilities from the levee authority.

He said one possibility that might be investigated is the use of cooperative endeavor agreements between the levee district and the parish, “but, I really don’t know where the money will be coming from at this point.”

But Peralta said he would “sit down with Lake Borgne Basin Levee District officials, the council, and maybe even the council in New Orleans will have to get involved in this.”

Peralta said he’d also be in touch with the state’s Congressional delegation to see if it could help.

He also expressed doubts about returning to voters for another election any time soon.

“In my opinion, the people ahve spoken and so I don’t see spending the tax money to put it on a third time,” Peralta said.

The failure of the tax increase also has raised concerns with the chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Levee Authority, which acted as the official “local sponsor” for the levee improvements in St. Bernard Parish.

“It’s especially disappointing considering the looming 2015 hurricane season,” which begins June 1, said Chip Kline.

“Levees and levee systems are extremely important to protecting people, homes and property. Without proper maintenance, property values will be diminished, while flood insurance skyrockets,” Kline said. “Levees need to be more than just maintained; they must be heightened and strengthened beyond their current levels so that our citizens receive the best protection possible.

“It is difficult to operate and maintain a post-Katrina hurricane protection system with pre-Katrina dollars, yet the CPRA remains committed to working with the local jurisdictions to address this very critical issue.”

May 4, 2015

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Levees, On the Ballot, Taxes

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