On the Ballot

(Opinion) Editorial: New Orleans voters should say no to sheriff’s tax hike

By Staff Editorial

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

April 28, 2023

Tomorrow is the first Saturday of Jazz Fest. It’s also Election Day in New Orleans — but we doubt very many voters will queue up to cast a ballot.

That’s too bad, because Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson is asking voters to nearly double the allowable property tax millage her office receives annually — from 2.8 mills to 5.5 mills for the next 10 years. We recommend that voters say “no” to the sheriff’s tax hike, at least for now.

You would think that any public official who wants voters to approve twice the amount of property tax they pay to that official’s office would spend a great deal of time and effort making the case for such a significant ask. Unfortunately, Hutson has done the opposite.

She quietly got the tax put on the ballot on a day when voter turnout is expected to run in or near single digits, and only launched a bare-bones effort to promote its passage in the final weeks leading up to the vote.

That strategy alone should give voters pause.

In fairness, Hutson inherited a jail governed by a federal consent decree designed to cure unconstitutional shortcomings. She says the jail desperately needs the additional $12.4 million a year her proposed tax hike would generate to boost employees’ pay, renovate facilities and generally help her comply with the consent decree.

The problem is that Hutson could not even itemize those expenses when called upon to do so by the New Orleans City Council during an April 13 budget hearing.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research cites the sheriff’s lack of specificity as one of the main reasons the City Hall watchdog opposes the tax hike. Another reason cited by BGR: The proposal lacks meaningful public accountability — both from the sheriff and its budgeting partner, City Hall.

The city currently provides more than 75% of the sheriff’s annual budget. If the tax passes, there’s nothing to stop the City Council from reducing that contribution. That would render the tax hike moot for jail improvements — but property owners would still be on the hook for more taxes.

The sheriff’s existing millage doesn’t expire until 2025. That gives Hutson two more years to better define the jail’s funding needs, confect a long-term budget solution with City Hall and explain it all to voters.

Voting “no” Saturday would send an important message: Public officials need to make the case for higher taxes — and schedule tax referenda when more voters are likely to turn out.

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