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What’s on the May 2 ballot 

Clancy DuBos on property tax millages in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes

While thousands of music lovers are enjoying Jazz Fest this Saturday, others will be sweating the outcome of what promises to be a low-turnout tax election.

This Saturday marks more than the second weekend of Jazz Fest. It's also Election Day across Louisiana. Some important tax referenda are on the ballots in area parishes, particularly Orleans and St. Bernard.

  Voters in New Orleans will decide the fate of two proposed property tax millages. One would redirect an existing millage for the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District (read: the Sheriff's Office); the other is an additional millage for city libraries.

  In St. Bernard, voters are being asked to raise property taxes for flood protection. Without additional revenue, parish flood control officials say, residents face increased threats of hurricane-related flooding and significantly higher flood insurance premiums.

  The Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District was created years ago to help finance construction of new jail facilities. The district currently levies a 2.8-mill property tax to service bonds that voters authorized in 2008. The district — that is, Sheriff Marlin Gusman — proposes redirecting a portion of the revenue from that millage (the portion that is not needed for debt service) to pay operational expenses for 10 years. The justification for redirecting that revenue is the high cost of implementing a federal consent decree that mandates major reforms at the scandalized jail facility.

  Gusman proposed a similar measure (2.9 mills instead of the current 2.8) in November, but voters rejected it. If the proposition fails again, the city could be on the hook for even more of the consent decree costs, which could trigger significant cuts in city services. If approved, the overall millage rate for the district would not change; the measure would merely redirect a portion of the revenue derived from the existing millage.

  Gusman has run a quiet campaign, to say the least. By contrast, supporters of the city library millage have garnered support from many community, civic and political leaders. The library already gets 3.14 mills, but it does not generate enough to keep the library branches open and properly functioning. The proposition on Saturday's ballot calls for an additional 2.7 mills for 40 years. The new tax would generate $8.25 million a year and allow library branches to open seven days a week.

  The only opposition to the library proposition comes from the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), which says the library board's failure to adopt a strategic plan indicates the board lacks a clear vision for the library's future. BGR says it supports a strong library system and notes that the library board has sufficient funds to continue operations into 2016. It suggests the board develop a better plan before asking voters for more taxes. (See News, p. 7)

  In St. Bernard, flood control officials are going back to voters after failing to convince them in December to raise taxes for flood protection. At stake is a 7.5-mill property tax to support the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, which is the flood protection agency for St. Bernard Parish.

  The proposed 30-year millage would generate $2.5 million a year. The district currently levies a millage that generates approximately $3.5 million a year — but the agency runs a deficit because its responsibilities increased exponentially after Hurricane Katrina. In addition to storm-related flood protection, the levee district also handles drainage for most of the parish.

  While thousands of music lovers are enjoying Jazz Fest this Saturday, others will be sweating the outcome of what promises to be a low-turnout tax election.

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