The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this navigational flood gate where Bayou Dupre meets the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal. But it's up to the levee district in St. Bernard Parish to operate and maintain it, and the levee district has run short on money the last several years. Credit: Paul Floro / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Since Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans area has taken a regional approach to hurricane protection. An interconnected system of levees and floodwalls protects people throughout Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.

But each parish must pay for its portion of the system. A newly enacted law could be the first step to changing that.

The law allows the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, which oversees levees and floodwalls in St. Bernard Parish, to hand off responsibility for pumping stations and drainage canals to parish government in 2018.

Lake Borgne is the only levee district in the state responsible for the canals and pumping stations that keep neighborhoods dry during rainstorms. That’s in addition to its duty to keep up the floodwalls and levees that guard against hurricane storm surge.

Elsewhere, agencies such as parish government or water utilities handle drainage from thunderstorms.

The law is meant to ease the burden on the levee district in St. Bernard Parish, which has struggled to pay for its share of the hurricane protection system.

”Floodwaters don’t really care what political boundaries you have.”—State Rep. Walt Leger III

A complementary bill, which would have dealt with how flood protection is funded, didn’t become law this year. State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, sponsored both bills. He said he may propose the second one again next year.

That bill would have allowed the two regional flood protection authorities in the New Orleans area — there’s one on each side of the river, and they cross parish lines — to levy a tax, without voter approval, that could be spent on flood protection anywhere in their jurisdictions. Right now, taxes collected in one parish can’t be spent in another.

“Floodwaters don’t really care what political boundaries you have,” Leger said. A regional tax is “the fairest way of financing the maintenance and operation of a huge flood protection project that protects all three parishes.”

New hurricane protection system is expensive to run

Hurricane protection is expensive, especially since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the improved, $14.5 billion storm surge system after Hurricane Katrina. The system is overseen by the east and west bank regional levee authorities.

Projects to strengthen the system in one parish indirectly benefit people elsewhere within the levees. But each levee district has to maintain its own portion and foot the bill for improvements.

That’s tough for the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District in St. Bernard Parish. Its portion of the system can be the first line of defense against hurricanes, but it has fewer residents and lower property values than Orleans and Jefferson parishes. So the tax for flood protection in St. Bernard Parish generates far less money for flood protection.

Nick Cali, executive director of the Lake Borgne levee district, said it used to spend two-thirds of its budget on drainage and pumping stations, and the other third on the levee system. Now it’s the opposite.

The levee district has run a deficit for the past several years, dipping into its reserves to cover the shortfall.

St. Bernard voters have twice rejected efforts to raise property taxes dedicated to flood protection.

So the Lake Borgne levee district has scaled back on its work to manage rainfall drainage, prioritizing protection against storm surge instead.

All its pumping stations used to be staffed 24 hours a day. Now three or four employees are split among eight pumping stations, about 10 hours a day, Cali said. The agency has put off other maintenance as well, such as regular clearing of drainage canals.

The new law allows the levee district to hand off everyday drainage management to parish government, which could free money for hurricane protection. However, Cali said the district will continue to handle drainage unless the financial picture becomes “too dire.”

St. Bernard Parish president Guy McInnis said he supports having the parish handle drainage, but only if it has a way to pay for it. He said he hopes future law can be crafted to bring in that money without raising taxes.

A regional tax

That’s where Leger’s other bill would come in.

The bill, a constitutional amendment, would have allowed the two New Orleans-area regional levee authorities to tax property owners up to 5 mills, without voter approval. That would come on top of the taxes now paid to the levee districts in each parish.

Orleans property owners pay about 11 to 12.5 mills for flood protection depending on which side of the river they’re on. For Jefferson property owners that fall under the two metro-area levee authorities, it’s 4 to 5 mills.

The regional levee authorities already can tax residents an unlimited amount, but a majority of voters in each parish would have to approve it first.

A 5-mill tax could raise about $40 million a year for both levee authorities combined, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. The east bank levee authority expects to pay about $34 million a year to run the hurricane protection system and repay the federal government for its share of the construction.

”It’s a tax. People don’t like taxes.”—State Rep. Walt Leger III

The bill didn’t make it out of committee this year. Leger said there were too many pressing issues and there wasn’t enough support among legislators. “It’s a tax,” he said. “People don’t like taxes.”

If the bill had made it further, he said he hoped to make the tax contingent on a regional vote rather than parish-by-parish. Under current law, voters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes could overwhelmingly approve a regional flood-protection tax, but if it failed narrowly in St. Bernard, it wouldn’t go into effect.

Leger said the levee system “has the potential to become unsustainable” if funding isn’t changed. “There’s going to have to be a solution,” he said.

With a regional tax, McInnis and Leger said, St. Bernard may not have to raise its property tax rates as much as proposed in the last two referendums. That’s because Orleans and Jefferson parishes have more residents than St. Bernard, and the burden would be spread across all three parishes.

St. Bernard homeowners may have to pay more than they do now, McInnis said. “But not the amount we would have to pay if we are by ourselves.”

Before the Legislature convenes next April, McInnis said, “I’m assuming … we’re going to come up with a plan to make sure we figure all this out. And it’s going to have to take cooperation of the three parishes.”