By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer
A City Council majority that favored a smaller tax increase than sought by Mayor Mitch Landrieu fell apart in the past week, making Saturday morning’s property tax increase possible.
The City Council on Dec. 1 approved a 2011 city budget that included a 6.74-mill property tax increase, less than the 8.74-mill increase the mayor sought. At that time, only Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell voted against the budget, saying she favored a higher tax to provide more services. Councilman Jon Johnson made remarks that showed he favored higher taxes, though he voted for the lower amount.
The other five members made no such remarks and made up the majority that landed at the compromise figure of 6.74 mills.
After the Landrieu administration and the council decided against raising a tax on parking lots in the past week, Landrieu privately bargained individually with council members to find another way to raise money, and he settled on increasing property taxes another mill.
The seven-member council approved the increase at an extraordinary Saturday meeting, with only Councilwoman Stacy Head voting against it.
Council President Arnie Fielkow said he reluctantly supported the move in an effort to build unity with the mayor and to show the council could move past the contention of recent years when it bickered with then-Mayor Ray Nagin. Still, he reiterated his earlier reasoning against a further increase and hinted at the collapse of the previous voting bloc.
He said the budget as passed on Dec. 1 provided the city with nearly everything that Landrieu asked for and held taxes down. That 6.74-mill increase was a compromise in itself, between members who wanted the full 8.74-mill increase and those seeking an increase closer to 4.74 mills.
“Such a position was supported by the council majority.” he said. “Today’s vote is not an easy one for me.”
He explained his flip-flop on the tax as “a vote in the spirit of partnership.”
In voting for the increase, Hedge-Morrell maintained her earlier stance, and Johnson got to vote in a way that reflected his earlier remarks, if not his earlier vote.
Neither Kristen Gisleson Palmer, Jackie Clarkson nor Susan Guidry fully explained their reasons for changing their minds.
Guidry said she hoped a fair reassessment of properties could lead to a roll back of taxes in the next year or two.
Like Fielkow, the three offered platitudes about working together with the mayor.
“This city wants to see a team effort and they want to see us work together,” Gisleson Palmer said.
Clarkson was the most effusive, waving what she said were five pages of reasons why she liked Landrieu. Even though only a 1-mill increase was being voted on Clarkson couldn’t help herself from throwing laurels — and even more money — at Landrieu.
“Yes, we thought we had an agreement,” at a lower tax rate, she said. “I don’t commit to this (new tax rate) because I believe in the mayor…he had to be a mayor who has proven himself. He has. That’s why I support the last two mills.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head maintained her allegiance to the earlier compromise.
“It is with sadness that I must cast a vote against this,” she said. “Unfortunately they changed their mind at the last minute. I believed we had a fair compromise. I will continue to stand with the mayor when he is correct.”
She said that she supports the mayor and his staff the vast majority of the time.
“But in this instance, I do believe that they overshot it,” she said.
The meeting began with the president of the Bureau of Governmental Research asking if the meeting was even legal, though she said she had no position on the increase. The city attorney pointed her to a part of the city charter that allows such meetings to be scheduled in November and December. The council met the bare minimum of the required 72 hours of notice called for by the charter.