On the Ballot

Infrastructure funding on the line in three New Orleans ballot measures

By Jessica Williams

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

November 14, 2019

Since taking office in May 2018, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has searched far and wide for more money to fund the city’s pressing infrastructure needs, winning a big victory this spring when state officials and the tourism industry agreed to send millions of dollars to the Sewerage & Water Board and allow a ballot initiative to raise more funds from visitors.

On Saturday, with three measures related to city funding on the ballot in New Orleans, Cantrell will be asking residents to open their own wallets a little wider to help pay for drainage, street repairs and other infrastructure projects.

Cantrell has been grappling with the realities of running an old city plagued with routine flooding, frequent boil-water advisories and streets marred with thousands of potholes. But to convince residents, many of whom are facing sharply higher property-tax assessments this year, to pay higher taxes is still a challenge.

“Taking the temperature of the public throughout this whole process, I do believe that the public is smart, and they know what they need,” Cantrell said in a recent interview to discuss the ballot initiatives, which include a 3-mill property tax for maintenance and other needs, a $500 million bond issue for infrastructure and a sales tax on short-term rentals.

The proposals are listed on the ballot separately, meaning some may be approved and others defeated.

The 3-mill property tax, if approved, is expected to bring in $12 million annually for maintenance and repair of the city’s infrastructure.

The owner of a home worth $200,000 with a homestead exemption would pay $37.50 more in taxes, on top of the roughly $2,000 that same homeowner already pays.

Streets and pipes are included in the infrastructure that would benefit, but so too would be the repair and replacement of city equipment like fire trucks, Cantrell said.

She pointed out that the tax would take effect a year after a separate tax to pay off bonds decreased by the same amount.

“We want to take the 3 mills that fell off and rededicate them to maintenance, because we do not have a fund with money in it to maintain the investments that the federal government and the city have made,” Cantrell said.

For example, the city had to come up with millions to replace elevators and the heating and cooling systems in Orleans Parish Civil District Court this year. And more than 40% of the Fire Department’s front-line vehicles are more than a decade old, according to Superintendent Tim McConnell. Though a number of fire trucks were purchased in recent years, there are still too many older trucks in the fleet, he said.

But critics of the proposal, including the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that wants to see more affordable housing built, said the millage is nevertheless an additional burden on taxpayers.

“This is a tax increase,” the group said this month. “If we can’t afford to pay what we’re already paying, how can we afford to pay more?”

Half of the $500 million bond issue would pay for drainage and street repairs. Another $225 million would fund public facilities and public safety equipment, and about $25 million would go to create affordable housing, according to the city.

The bond issue would be funded through an existing 22.5-mill property tax dedicated to paying off city bonds. The bond proceeds would be allocated as part of the city’s annual capital budgeting process.

The money would also allow the city to more quickly access more than $1 billion that FEMA has awarded it to repair streets and pipes, administration officials have said. That money is available to the city on a reimbursement basis only, and it must be spent by 2023.

The final proposal before voters, for a tax on short-term rentals, is the last piece of the mayor’s “fair share” infrastructure package, approved this year by the Legislature. It would ensure that tourists who stay in Airbnbs and similar units would pay the same taxes to the city as those who stay in hotels.

Three quarters of the tax’s proceeds would go to the city’s infrastructure maintenance fund, while 25% would go to tourism promotion efforts.

The three ballot measures have received the backing of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan policy group.

Action New Orleans, Cantrell’s PAC, has mobilized nearly 90 canvassers to stump for the ballot measures and other issues, more than Cantrell deployed during her mayoral campaign. The PAC raised more than $130,000 last month, spent $104,000 and had over $200,000 left on hand.

A crew of “social influencers” — musicians, artists and small business owners — met with the mayor this week to discuss getting out the vote, according to the city’s Facebook page.

Cantrell spoke in dire terms about what could happen if voters shoot down the proposals, particularly if money that would be used to access FEMA reimbursement funding is lost to the city.

“It’s going to impact (residents’) quality of life in a negative way,” she said. “If we want to leverage the federal money we have to impact infrastructure, we need to leverage it with public money we have at our disposal.”

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