Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposal to nearly double property taxes for police and fire protection got the approval of the state Legislature on Thursday, putting the question before voters statewide and in New Orleans in the coming months.
The portion of property taxes that go to police and fire protection could rise from about 10.5 mills to 20 mills. That would cost the owner of a $150,000 house about $143 more a year.
Before that would happen, voters statewide and in Orleans Parish would have to approve the increase in November. Then New Orleans voters would have to approve it again in an election set by the City Council.
Landrieu pushed the measure in hopes that it will help him pay for three court-ordered judgments against the city.
Raising the fire and police millage rates would bring in $31.6 million next year, a legislative analysis found. City officials have said they may need $40 million more per year to shore up the firefighters’ pension fund, reform the troubled Police Department and end abuses at Orleans Parish Prison.
Landrieu has said the alternative to raising taxes would be deep cuts in public services in New Orleans.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, won approval Thursday by the House on an 85-0 vote, with 19 absent. It had earlier passed the Senate, 35-0 with 4 absent.*
House Bill 111 doesn’t need Gov. Bobby Jindal’s approval — and he can’t veto it — because it is a constitutional amendment.
With the Legislature’s action, the Nov. 4 statewide ballot will include a constitutional amendment asking if New Orleans residents should be given the chance to vote on the property tax measure.
If voters throughout Louisiana and in Orleans Parish approve the amendment, the New Orleans City Council would call an election just in New Orleans and set the actual millage rate – up to 20 mills — that would be on the ballot. Tyler Gamble, a Landrieu spokesman, said that election could come as soon as December.
Leger emphasized that it will be up to voters to decide whether to pay more.
“We have a series of costly judgments and consent decrees related to public safety in our city,” he said in an interview after the bill passed. “We have a bunch of bills to pay.”
Nick Felton, president of the New Orleans firefighters union, said the bill mandates that the higher taxes, if approved by voters, would have to be spent in addition to what city already puts toward police and fire protection.
Leger said putting the property tax question on the ballot in New Orleans requires a change to the state constitution because New Orleans is both a city and a parish and because the proposed tax would be outside of the homestead exemption.
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*Correction: This story originally misreported the vote counts in the House and Senate. (May 29, 2014)