By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer
If the City Council ratifies a tax increase Saturday that members privately negotiated with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, it will take one of the final actions needed to produce a balanced 2011 budget.
Despite the back-channel politicking that will result in a higher bill for most city property owners, Landrieu on Friday proclaimed the protracted budget effort “the most open process – end of story.”
It’s unclear whether Landrieu or the council considered spending cuts or only looked at ways to increase revenue.
The mayor released a statement earlier in the week saying he and the council had reached an agreement to increase property taxes beyond the increase approved by the council on Dec. 1. He said the sanitation fee added to water bills will double, up slightly from earlier discussions.
Though neither the council nor the mayor had publicly discussed the possibility of a further tax increase before Tuesday, the mayor seemed to speak for the council in the release that day, saying more than once that they’d reached agreement.
Asked about how he could say a deal was forged without a public meeting, Landrieu said he approached each council member individually.
Landrieu explained his process of negotiating with the council as common practice.
“I asked them to think about it and we worked on it,” he said.
He denied the process excluded the public saying, “The public still has the opportunity to be involved at the hearing on Saturday.”
He said the council members are free to change their minds.
The Lens tried to reach all seven council members Friday. Only Council President and Budget Committee Chairman Arnie Fielkow and Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell responded.
“I really believed the budget passed last week was a beneficial one for the public, in that it reduced the proposed millage by 25 percent and still provided the administration with all the programming they requested,” Fielkow said, adding that he’d have more to say at Saturday’s meeting.
Hedge-Morrell reasserted her earlier view that the city should increase taxes as much as possible to accomplish the greatest good.
Councilwoman Stacy Head voted against convening the new meeting and said she didn’t support the new tax increase.
Saturday’s vote won’t be the last needed to produce a balanced budget. The council still has to vote on the sanitation fee, a move likely to come at its first meeting in January.
Only then will the city have a balanced budget. Though Landrieu took credit in his news release for producing a budget “that is honest with no partial year funding,” the council removed more than $5 million in spending on utility costs for city property. Without the tax and sanitation increases, the city won’t have money to pay its light bill.
The city lost a source of revenue recently when the mayor and council agreed – again, apparently in private – to drop an increase in taxes paid by parking-lot owners.
In submitting his budget in October, Landrieu wanted a tax increase of 8.74 mills, which is the upper limit of taxes approved by voters. The council this month approved an increase of 6.74 mills. The Saturday action would bump that increase to 7.74 mills.
A mill brings in about $2.6 million, and it costs a homeowner $1 for every $1,000 of value in a property after taking off $75,000 for eligible homestead exemptions. The current tax rate is 139.84 mills.
The council is also looking to double the trash-collection fee for individual, from $12 to $24. That’s more than the $22 proposed by the council. Commercial customers would see a jump from $20 to $40.