For the president of the regional flood protection authority, St. Bernard Parish’s rejection on Saturday of a property-tax increase for its levee and storm drainage agency had two immediate results.
“If the Lake Borgne levee district were a business, they would be in bankruptcy because they don’t have the funds to meet their expenses,” said Stephen Estopinal, head of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which oversees the Orleans, East Jefferson and Lake Borgne levee districts.
And second, more to the point: “Right now, if they had a major problem with their system, they couldn’t fix it because they don’t have the money,” he said.
For St. Bernard residents, the ramifications may not be seen right away, but they’ll be obvious by looking outside — or at their checkbooks, Lake Borgne Basin Levee District Executive Director Nick Cali said in a news release Monday.*
The vote could result in “drastic measures” including cuts to “staff and pumping capabilities, which may result in street flooding during rain events,” he wrote. Homeowners could face “significant flood insurance rate increases resulting from the levee district’s inability to comply with federal standards,” he said.
It was the second time St. Bernard voters turned down the proposal that would have increased the annual millage to 18.6 from 11.1. Fifty-eight percent voted “no,” little change from the 61 percent that rejected the measure in December.
The increase would have been about $38.25 per year for a homeowner with property valued at $125,000, which is the average sales price in the parish. Millage rates for the east bank of Orleans and Jefferson parishes for the same purpose are about 11 and 4 respectively; they also have the benefit of a larger tax base, which brings in more money for the same rate.*
The St. Bernard failure could affect the entire east bank because the new $14.5 billion hurricane storm surge system is designed as a perimeter wall wrapped around all three parishes. A break in one section due to poor maintenance could result in flooding pouring into adjoining areas.
While the system provides unified protection, there is no unity in funding. State law prohibits the authority from using tax dollars raised in one parish on work in another. With St. Bernard’s population cut in half by Hurricane Katrina, the Lake Borgne levee district’s income has been unable to keeping up with expenses, including $1.4 billion in levee improvements post-Katrina.
Estopinal said the regional board is discussing options on how to proceed, but he declined to discuss them publicly out of fear of alarming residents.
“Some of what we’re talking about may sound very draconian, so we don’t want to put that out there if there are ways to avoid those things,” he said.
“But the bottom line is we are going to find ways to do less [in St. Bernard] while trying to maintain the integrity of the system, which is how we keep people safe.”
Cali said his agency already is prioritizing work to segments of the floodwalls, levees and drainage system for future repairs.
“We can’t spend money we don’t have, so we need to have list of which is absolutely essential for when these things need maintenance and repair,” he said. “Some things we just won’t be able to do.”
Correction: This story originally misstated the name of the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District. It also misstated the property tax in Orleans and Jefferson parishes that go to flood protection. It’s about 4 mills for the East Jefferson Levee District and about 11 mills for the Orleans Levee District. (July 21, 2016)