By Karen Gadbois and Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writers

The only member of the City Council who didn’t vote to increase property taxes today was opposed because she said the 5 percent bump wasn’t enough.

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said the modest increase will only “nickel and dime us into mediocrity.”

Others on the seven-member body said the increase was more than they’d hoped for, but overall, it was a good compromise.

In approving a 2011 budget today, the deadline set by the City Charter, the council scaled back the 8.74 mill tax increase sought by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to 6.74 mills.

The council refused to grant the Sewerage & Water Board’s request for a 6.16 mill increase.

The 2010 overall tax rate is 139.84 mills, meaning property owners pay $13.98 for every $1,000 of value. Next year, that amount will increase to $14.66.

For owner-occupied properties, the vast majority of that goes into effect only after the first $75,000 of value, which is exempt under state law.

To generate more money, though, the council approved an increase in trash pick-up fees, and introduced another measure for consideration in January that would raise the sanitation fee even more. The current rate is $12 a month for homeowners, and today’s action increases that to $20. The January vote could add another $2 or more.

That will raise about $5 million.

The council added and subtracted money in 21 categories, with a total result of taking $3.4 million out of the budget.

But when adding the new trash fee into the equation, the budget will total the $484 million that Landrieu asked for, plus another $1.7 million that has been projected since Landrieu filed his budget with the council.

Overall, the creation and approval of the budget was much smoother than in past years, when the council and former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration badgered and sniped at each other for months.

The council credited the new administration with presenting its budget proposal two weeks earlier than it had in the past. Councilwoman Susan Guidry even went so far as to say that she “cannot overstate the brilliance of the mayor.”

The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, of which The Lens is a member, asked the council to let the public see its proposed changes last week. Council members agreed to try, but in the end, they weren’t able to produce a budget before today. In fact, aides were making photocopies of necessary documents even as the 10 a.m. meeting began.

A last-minute attempt to gather public input before the council’s vote on the tax increase attracted a mere two residents – one of whom is a professional policy adviser who makes a living researching and opining on the city’s use of taxpayer dollars.

But while Bureau of Governmental Research director Janet Howard warned against the council’s decision to freeze the Sewerage & Water Board taxing rate, Gentilly homeowner Steve Donahue challenged the city’s right to take more money from homeowners who chose to return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. Donahue, who is disabled and lives on a fixed income, said that he is making sacrifices to pay his own bills while also “bearing the burden of supporting the city.”

“I’m watching my water, watching my energy consumption. Meanwhile, they’re fishing in a barrel, getting our money,” he said after the meeting.

The state Constitution requires that taxing authorities hold a public hearing before raising taxes to a voter-approved maximum. In this case, the city scheduled its public hearing for the same day that the council was required by the City Charter to pass the budget.

Unlike most public hearings, today’s event happened with none of the formal introductions and presentations that typically open such discussions. Instead, people signed up to speak the same way they do during regular open meetings of the council and were given three minutes.

Howard and Donohue were called up to speak as council members were busy considering a related technical amendment, but no one spoke when the council was considering the ordinance directly addressing the tax increase.

“As far as I’ve seen, there was no public hearing, not the way they usually have a public hearing,” eastern New Orleans homeowner Lorraine Washington said.

Washington said she attends council meetings whenever she can because she feels like progress is not happening in her district and she wants to know why.

“I’m trying to understand why we pay the same taxes as everyone in the city but the recovery still is happening so slow in the east,” she said. The tax increase wouldn’t be so bothersome to her if she felt that the money would “flow back to her district,” she added.

Among other things, the increase in taxes will help pay for $500,000 the council added to the City Planning Commission’s $1.2 million budget requested by Landrieu. The money will cover personnel costs associated with implementing a much-touted citywide master plan adopted this year, Executive Director Yolanda Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez had requested $1.3 million to hire 13 new district planners who would work in particular neighborhoods to ensure that development was proceeding according to the plan. During council budget hearings, council members spoke in support of shelling out more cash for planners, citing the need for more efficient permitting and zoning processes. Rodriguez said the additional $500,000 approved today would be spent according to as-yet-unreleased council specifications.

“Staffing is always a good thing. I really can’t complain,” she said. “If the instructions are for extra staffing, whether for design review or district planners, either way will benefit the city tremendously.”

In line with other sentiments voiced during the budget hearings, the council voted to cut $1 million in funding for the Nola Business Alliance.

Also responding to public sentiment, the council added $200,000 for a contract with the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, bringing the total to $1.7 million, but well below the $2.5 million requested by the organization.

New Orleans is unique in the state in that it doesn’t handle its own animal-control services, instead opting to contract with the LA/SPCA.

“We were pleased to see that New Orleans City Council recognized the need for more funding for Animal Control services,” CEO Ana Zorrilla said in a written statement. “While it is not the entire amount we proposed we are committed to providing Animal Control to the city of New Orleans and we will be working with the City to determine what services we can provide.”

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...