St. Bernard’s rejection of flood-protection tax could ripple across east bank

St. Bernard voters overwhelmingly voted down a proposal Saturday to increase a property tax that funds flood protection — a vote that could affect Orleans and Jefferson parishes, which are part of the same regional flood protection system.

The Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, which covers St. Bernard Parish, is responsible for maintaining the southern section of a system that shields the entire east bank.*

With a parish population half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina, the 11.1-mill tax isn’t meeting expenses, according to the levee district. The proposal would have raised the tax to 18.6 mills, a 67 percent increase.

Sixty-one percent of voters rejected that increase, along with other tax increases and renewals.

The vote won’t change flood protection overnight, said Nick Cali, executive director of the levee district, but it will force his agency to make hard decisions about where to cut costs.

“On Monday morning we’re going to sit down and talk about the next step in looking for money,” Cali said.

The Lake Borgne levee district takes in about $3.7 million a year. Right now it spends about $500,000 more than that, Cali said.

The agency has $5.2 million in reserve, he said, but its expenses will jump to roughly $6 million annually when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hands over the rest of the $14.5 billion flood protection system.

Bob Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said the anticipated shortfall can’t be made up simply by cutting expenses.

“There will be some things that we just won’t be able to do,” he said. “Until we find more revenue, the key will be to prioritize.”

The tax funds operation and maintenance of 60 miles of levees, 33 floodgates and two navigation floodgates. Unlike the other levee districts, the Lake Borgne district also runs the parish drainage system, which includes 55 miles of drainage canals and eight pump stations.

While only St. Bernard residents voted Saturday, the issue has implications for the rest of the east bank.

Because New Orleans, St. Bernard and East Jefferson sit on the same sinking delta, storm surge invading one parish can flow into the others.  That’s why the corps designed the new system as a perimeter defense — a chain of interlocking levees and floodwalls stretching from Kenner to Caernarvon.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East was established specifically to oversee operations of the three levee districts that maintain this system. But state law prohibits taxes raised in one district from being used in another.

The more populated parishes of Orleans and Jefferson have surpluses. But St. Bernard has struggled to meet the demands of the southern end of the system.

The east bank of Orleans Parish, with a tax rate of 11.67 mills, collects about $30.5 million a year. East Jefferson’s 3.91 mills brings in about $8.8 million.*

St. Bernard’s higher millage of 11.1 garners just $3.4 million because of its much smaller population and tax base.

Correction: This story originally misstated the name of the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District. It also misstated Orleans Parish’s flood protection tax rate and how much it brings in. (July 21, 2016)

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  • nickelndime

    Good for you, St. Bernard Parish. I’ve got to give you props on having the ####s to reject a property tax increase to pay for something (flood protection), i.e., that others (experts and attorneys) have called the “inevitable.” Eighty-five percent of Orleans Parish will be a bird print in less than 200 years. We can’t fight Nature or the Mississippi River. If the “air” doesn’t get you, the rising water or sediment will. If anybody in this gawd4saken swampland of southeast Louisiana knows how to survive catastrophes, it’s you! 12/07/2014 1:09 AM

  • Robert Burns

    Beatiful! Let ’em eat cake, St. Bernard. Let every homeowner build his own freakin’ dike…and maintain it.

    By God, it’s the American way.

  • nickelndime

    New Orleans will be a bird print by the time the 50-year master plan is completed – that’s the “good” news. The question is not “What could go wrong?” The question is “Will anything go right?” St. Bernard voters are being realistic and pragmatic. They know that paying increased property taxes will not make or break their future any more than it will for Orleans or Jefferson Parish. Look at the registered voters in Orleans Parish. The majority of these voters will believe anything – if it is pictorial – and smiling kids help (like those displayed on public school campuses – illegally, I might add), but Judge Tiffany Chase must have missed that lesson while in law school! 12/08/2014 10:06 PM

  • nickelndime

    Hey Robert Burns – I may not agree with your perception of St. Bernard voters, but at least you are thinking and writing. You probably already saw what I think of New Orleans voters. St. Bernard public schools have made great strides and appear to be improving systemwide on its own merits and hard work. It does not have the parasitic State RSD feeding out of the parish public trough or controlling building leases. The parish school board is stable and secure. The public schools are functioning quite capably with State-certified principals and experienced teachers. There are no charter schools and no 6-figure salaried CEOs, CAOs, CFOs, COOs and a host of other non-teaching personnel. In fact, Orleans Parish should take a good admiring look at the adjoining parishes. 2/08/2014 10:26 PM