In The News › ‘Yes’ to Orleans Parish jail tax and charter amendments: Editorial

‘Yes’ to Orleans Parish jail tax and charter amendments: Editorial

By The Editorial Board

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

October 24, 2014

The NOLA.com | Times-Picayune editorial board makes the following recommendations for the Nov. 4 ballot.

ORLEANS PARISH

LAW ENFORCEMENT DISTRICT PROPERTY TAX

To levy a property tax not exceeding 2.9 mills for 10 years to provide additional funding for the operation, maintenance and upkeep of jails and related facilities; the millage would be reduced each year by the amount needed to pay off existing debt on capital projects.

Yes

This proposal is a way for Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the city to pay for badly needed improvements at Orleans Parish Prison without raising taxes or cutting other services. The jail is under a federal court consent decree because of unconstitutional and dangerous conditions, and it will take a substantial investment to fix the problems. Estimates are that it will cost between $10 million and $22 million per year to implement the needed reforms. The sheriff currently gets the proceeds from a 2.9 mill property tax to pay off $55 million in capital projects. But that money can’t be used for other needs. This proposal would create a new tax of 2.9 mills minus the amount needed for the debt payments each year. The taxes will work in sync: As the existing millage rate decreases, the new millage would go up — for a combined total of 2.9 mills. The tax rate for property owners would remain the same. A homeowner with a homestead exemption on a $200,000 house, for example, would continue to pay $36.25 per year, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research. The millages are expected to generate $9.1 million in 2015, about $5.8 million of which would be needed for debt payments, according to BGR. The debt payment would fall in subsequent years, with a final payment of $830,000 in 2026, BGR says. Meanwhile, the tax proceeds not needed for the debt payments could be spent on improvements in jail services. The city says that as much as $8 million per year will be available in the future for those costs. Sheriff Gusman has said he would use the money to care for inmates — including mental health and medical care — and maintain the jail. BGR, which supports the tax proposal, noted that the federal court’s oversight should help ensure the money is spent where needed. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Thursday: “We need a creative solution to fund a constitutional jail without raising taxes or cutting services.” His administration and the sheriff have worked together to come up with a tax strategy, which is a practical approach to a difficult financial quandary.

HOME RULE CHARTER

AMENDMENT ON CONTRACTING

To incorporate provisions governing professional services contracts created by executive order in 2010 and the city’s disadvantaged business enterprise program into the charter.

Yes

The city’s Home Rule Charter includes broad language requiring professional services contracts to be awarded by a competitive process set up by the mayor. Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010 put in place reforms setting up selection committees made up of experts to vet contractors and making the process more transparent. This amendment would put some of those provisions into the charter, which would give them more permanence. The amendment requires selection committees to include at least three government employees with expertise relevant to the work covered by the contract. The committees also would be required to notify the public of their meetings, review proposals in open meetings and make committee records available to the public. The mayor would be forbidden to be a member of a selection committee. In arguing for the amendment, Mayor Landrieu said: “We need fair and open city contracting.” Yes, and his executive order provided that foundation. Those good government measures would be greatly strengthened by being added to the charter.

HOME RULE CHARTER

AMENDMENT ON INAUGURATION DATE

To move the inauguration for the mayor and City Council from the first Monday in May to the second Monday in January.

Yes

City elections are shifting from March to October beginning in 2017. The Legislature approved the change in 2013 after a study by the League of Women Voters found that Mardi Gras and other events have made it difficult at times to get polling places set up for March elections. Holding fall elections is expected to reduce costs as well. The primary election will be the third Saturday in October with runoffs a month later. With that change coming, the inauguration date needs to be shifted so there won’t be too much time between Election Day and the swearing-in ceremony. Having the mayor and council take office in January is a common sense change. A couple of months is plenty of time for transition, and having the mayor and council take office at the beginning of the year will match up better with the city’s budget cycle. Currently there is a four-month gap between the approval of the budget and inauguration day. When there is a change in administrations, that extra time in office allows the outgoing mayor to overspend without having to worry about the consequences later in the budget year. That was a problem when Ray Nagin was a lame duck mayor. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration came into office facing a massive budget shortfall that required deep cuts. That might have been avoided — or at least reduced — if Mayor Landrieu’s inauguration had occurred sooner.

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