In The News › Separate questions deserve a separate vote

Separate questions deserve a separate vote

By Bart Everson

Mid-City Messenger

April 4, 2016

A tale of two mailers

We just got a couple of mailers urging us to vote YES on April 9 for “Police and Fire Protection.”

I couldn’t help notice a similar graphic design in both mailers, so I took a closer look. Sure enough, both pieces were paid for by the “Citizens for Public Safety PAC.” bart-everson-headshot-2013

Two different direct mail campaigns, paid for by the same PAC, mailed at the same time, for a single ballot proposition. Did they just have extra money to burn?

Actually, it makes perfect sense. One mailer urges support for our firefighters. The other advocates expanding our police force. One features warm colors, the other cool. Red for fire and blue for cops, I guess.

They really are two separate issues. Two separate arguments that we as voters are being asked to consider.

Yet the two issues have been bundled together into a single referendum. The two questions have been conflated into a single decision.

Why is that, I wonder.

Two new taxes

We’re being asked to approve two new property taxes in one go. The first tax is five mills on the dollar, for hiring new police. That’s almost $18 million per year. The second tax is half as much for the firefighters, just shy of $9 million per year. Both taxes would last for twelve years, until 2028.

Of the two, the fire tax is easier to swallow. The firefighters have gotten a raw deal over the last thirty years. They didn’t get raises despite a state law that required it.

There are a lot of messy details: interest on that back pay, issues with the pension fund. The City of New Orleans entered into an agreement in October that’s supposed to rectify these long-standing issues. In short, we (the public) owe the firefighters a ton of money. We payed $15 million in January and we owe $60 million more — and that’s just to cover the back pay.

That money has to come from somewhere. This tax would cover it. If the tax doesn’t pass, we have to find the money elsewhere. Other parts of the city budget would probably be cut.

So much for the fire tax. The police tax is a much different beast. The idea is to hire more cops. We currently have about 1,150 officers; this tax would allow us to hire 450 more, a 40% increase.

It sounds simple enough, but it raises a host of questions. Chief among them: how many cops do we really need for a city our size? What is the ideal ratio of cops to people?

Our population has seen some wild oscillations over the past decade. New Orleans has sometimes clocked in as one of the most rapidly growing municipalities in the country, and we lost so many when the city was flooded in 2005. The size of our police force has also fluctuated over that time.

Given the current and projected size of the city, is a goal of 1,600 officers on the force reasonable? Our own Inspector General recently examined this very question and couldn’t find any conclusive data to support that notion.

Like many people, I’m prone to think more cops equals less crime, less violence on our streets. Over time, however, I’ve come to realize that’s a bit naïve. It’s not a simple matter of numbers. It’s also how police are deployed.

The philosophy of policing is a critical issue and worthy of further attention. For now I’d just like to note that there’s plenty of room for disagreement here. A person might easily support one tax and oppose the other.

If that describes you, tough. You won’t be able to express that at the polling place Saturday. You can either approve them both or reject them both. There’s nothing in between.

Fear of democracy

We all want a safer city, but is this any way to go about it?

The Bureau of Governmental Research notes that putting the two taxes together “may complicate the decision-making process” for poor slobs like me. Voters are likely to have “mixed opinions” about these “very different” issues.

Translation: People are favorably inclined to funding the NOFD, but they’re not sure we need to expand the NOPD.

Separating the two questions would allow a fuller and clearer expression of the public will. What purpose is served by lumping them together?

It seems that governmental officials are afraid of too much democracy. Perhaps they’re worried that we ignorant voters would get confused by an extra option on the ballot. One might even suspect they’re using the favorable sentiment for firefighters to bolster the case for police expansion, despite the lack of connection between the two.

This problem has not deterred a bunch of groups from endorsing the combined ballot measure. Even the aforementioned Bureau of Governmental Research comes down in favor of a YES vote. There hasn’t been much organized opposition, and so I expect this measure to win easily.

I’d like to think a NO vote could send a message to our officials. Unfortunately I’m not sure the message would be interpreted correctly, so I’ll spell it out.

We want democracy. We want real choices. We want a voice in the important issues that affect our lives.

If NO prevails, our officials should go back to the drawing board and present these separate issues as they should have been presented in the first place: separately.

Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.

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