By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
Seated on the elevated dais at City Council chambers today, Councilwoman Stacy Head rubbed her hands together and mouthed “money.”
The excitable District B representative had just heard Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s director of budget and planning say that the city may find a new source of cash in the independent board-run entities authorized to operate public facilities such as the French Market, the Public Belt Railroad, the Saenger Theater and Piazza D’Italia.
“How do we get nothing at all from all those public-benefit corporations?” Head asked, looking straight at city budget director Cary Grant, seated before her, in the shadow of the council’s raised stage.
As it stands now, revenue generated by these public-benefit corporations stays with the entity unless they choose to give it to the city, but Grant told Head he would ask the city attorney to examine whether the council could change that with legislation.
The exchange — heated but not hostile, inconclusive but not unproductive — characterized the first day of the City Council’s budget hearings, an annual process that this year is expected to last at least until Nov. 11, with the council voting on a final version of the budget on Dec. 1.
Many questions were raised over the course of today’s four-hour hearing but few solid answers given as the council began to publicly grapple with the implications of raising property taxes against the backdrop of a national recession and a city electorate with more renters than owners.
Head, who represents Central City, Uptown, the Irish Channel, parts of Mid-City and the Central Business District, made the most vocal case against the property-tax increase. The points she made were consistent with her long-time push to increase homeownership rates in the city as well as her interest in seeing tax burdens dispersed more equitably across a broader pool of city residents and businesses. She said that the fact that the mayor’s proposed increase raises the millage to the maximum allowed by law is motivation for her to try to reduce the size of the tax increase.
Council members raised the possibility of collecting revenue from the board-run bureaucratic agencies that control public facilities as an alternative to raising the city’s property tax by 8.74 mills, back to a rate approved by voters in 2007, generating $23 million. The city estimates this would cost the owner of a $150,000 house about $75 more a year while the owner of a $350,000 house would pay about $250 more a year.
A more contentious alternate source of funding raised by Head was increasing the tax every household and business pays on their Entergy utility bill.
“Everyone pays the Entergy tax,” Head said. “It would be more equitable to raise that tax then raising property taxes, which are paid by a scary-small percentage of the people who live or work here,” she said.
That idea was shot down initially by District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell, who said that increasing the utility tax would burden segments of the city’s population that were “struggling to survive.”
“We have some people in the city that are barely surviving,” she said. “To say that we are going to shift the burden to them is not what a community should do.”
Other members of the council did not take clear positions on raising the millage and instead, emphasized that this was the beginning of a learning process.
“On the first day of these hearings, these discussions are good,” District E Councilman Jon Johnson said. “They are start forcing us to think about what direction we as a council are moving towards.”