If the state's budget mess holds a lesson for local government, it's that ideologically refusing to raise needed taxes while "cutting government spending" is sometimes an irresponsible course. On April 9, New Orleans voters will go to the polls to decide two propositions: a property tax of 7.5 mills for the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the New Orleans Fire Department; and a $120 million bond issue for streets, public facilities and firefighting equipment. The former would help rebuild the NOPD and pay pensions owed to local firefighters. The latter mostly would go toward street repairs, with some funds for parks, buildings, fire trucks and land acquisition. Early voting has begun already and continues through Saturday, April 2. We support both propositions.
A modest increase for fire services seems a particular no-brainer. Just as Gov. John Bel Edwards' proposed sales tax increase will go toward paying down bills that were incurred by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the 2.5 mills proposed for the Fire Department will help the city settle a $60 million pension debt already owed to firefighters. Those pensions are not "expenses" that can be cut. Courts have ruled the city must pay, one way or another. A 2.5-mill tax on homeowners, set to begin in 2017 and expire in 2028, is as painless a way to pay the debt as any. Without this millage, the city could face drastic cuts to critical services, much like we're seeing at the state level.
The 5-mill police millage will help swell the ranks of NOPD to 1,600 by 2020. New Orleanians of all neighborhoods, political parties and races demand better response times and results from NOPD, and Police Chief Michael Harrison has made progress on those fronts. Last week's announcement that response times to 911 calls have been cut nearly in half clearly was intended to drum up support for this millage, but it's also a real gain. Harrison likewise has redirected manpower and resources to street patrols and plans to introduce other innovations, such as allowing citizens to report minor property crimes online. While rebuilding NOPD into a 1,600-officer force is a long-term goal, it's good to see the chief embrace strategies that get cops working on major crimes now.
"Approval of the tax would represent a major commitment by taxpayers to give the troubled Police Department the resources necessary to rebuild its ranks, reduce response times and provide better public safety outcomes," the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) wrote in its endorsement of the millage. The BGR cautioned, however, that the City Council would have to play watchdog to make sure benchmarks are met. We agree.
The streets and infrastructure bond issue likewise is a no-brainer. Truth is, New Orleans needs many times that much to get our streets up to snuff, but at least this is a beginning. The bonds would be supported by up to 2.5 mills of property tax.
The propositions are supported by a broad spectrum of city officials, business and civic leaders, and public interest groups. We add our voice to that chorus.