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Our Views: We support New Orleans fire, police tax

Our Views: We support New Orleans fire, police tax

The Advocate

March 20, 2016

When the people of New Orleans in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment authorizing a new public safety tax, the vote did not then raise any new money. The amendment that passed allows the city to seek voter approval to raise the 5-mill cap set in the Constitution.

Voters did not need a crystal ball to see that the city would shortly be seeking money for public safety, and now that decision is before the people as a specific proposition on the April 9 ballot.

If voters approve, property taxes would increase by 7.5 mills for 12 years starting in 2017.

NOPD would get an additional 5 mills, or about $17.73 million a year. The money would largely go to pay for new recruits as the department tries to expand from 1,163 officers to the 1,600 that officials have set as their goal. To do that, the NOPD would have to train 185 officers a year through 2020, with the expectation that about half of those would replace existing police who leave during that time.

In a city weary of crime, where response times are frighteningly high, few voters would argue with the idea that the force needs to grow. But the Bureau of Governmental Research, which is backing the proposition, notes that there is little research supporting the notion that 1,600 is the ideal size. Moreover, the city’s Inspector General has criticized the way officers are deployed, and Superintendent Michael Harrison, to his credit, has been pushing to get cops out onto the streets, where the criminals are. Still, the BGR noted, only 31 percent of the officers are on patrol, about half of the national norm.

Another concern is that the city’s hiring goals are unrealistic, and indeed the department grew by only 31 officers last year. Thanks to difficulties recruiting, the city did not spend its full police budget in 2015.

The other 2.5 mills, about $8.87 million a year, would go to the Fire Department. Technically, that money would be used to pay part of the city’s yearly contribution to the firefighters’ retirement system. But in doing so, it would free up existing funds to pay off a $75 million settlement between the firefighters’ union and the city over a decades-old lawsuit involving back pay. The dispute has gone on for a generation, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu deserves credit for tough negotiations with the firefighters’ union to achieve a settlement that will serve the long-term interests of pensioners and the city. Not surprisingly, the fire department portion of the tax has drawn little criticism.

Except for the year when Hurricane Katrina assaulted New Orleans, it would be hard to imagine a tougher time to be a police officer in the Crescent City.

The size of the force has shrunk by about a quarter. Officers face a staggering backlog of calls. And the consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, while necessary, is placing officers under greater scrutiny than ever and making more demands of them.

While the proposition before voters is not perfect, it’s difficult to see an alternative if New Orleanians want a police force that is more robust, more available and more professional.

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