Newell: Tax initiatives defining moment for city infrastructure

Three ballot initiatives on Nov 16 ballot aim to help - if NOLA voters approve them

Newell Normand
October 30, 2019 - 6:05 pm
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Tens of thousands of New Orleans homeowners are stuck with new tax rates that threaten to unravel their budgets and chase them out of the city for good. Mayor Cantrell has been clear that addressing these runaway rates needs to be a top priority in the city’s budget agenda, and she wants to trim back tax rates for residents and business owners. Some members of the City Council want to go even further and double the size of the Mayor’s proposed cuts. Councilmember Joe Giarrusso took time out of a hearing Wednesday morning to join Newell’s program and discuss the latest developments, and the infrastructure-related ballot initiatives on the November 16 ballot. 

“There’s a lot on your plate at the present time, a lot of it is revealing itself in these budget hearings,” Newell began. “What is the issue that you’re the most concerned about at this point in time?”

“We’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t have faith that government works the way it should,” Giarrusso answered. “They see this huge budget, roughly $725 million that goes into the city’s general fund and they want to know their money is being spent well. So that’s concern number one, and we in government need to prove every single day we’re spending that money wisely and doing the right things with it. The second concern I have is that there are undoubtedly huge needs across the city that need to be met. The Mayor’s started dealing with that through the Fair Share. We’ve seen an increase in property tax assessments across the city, but we are asking a lot from people in return. There’s the $500 million bond issuance that’s going to be on the ballot, the new 3 mills that are going to be on the ballot, Sewerage and Water Board is increasing their rates by 10 percent in 2020, we have potential roll forward of certain millages, five millages expiring next year - that’s a lot at one time while we’re trying to make sure the city is livable.”

“When I go to the ballot language, it seems as though everything is in there, however we did not tie our hands at all. As such, we put all of the expense categories in the ballot language. That increases the anxiety of the voting public in trying to determine the trust level they have and whether or not they’re willing to take this risk by placing more taxes on themselves without any guarantee that the money will actually be spent on the infrastructure that everybody’s talking about!” Newell said.

“That’s right. If you look at the proposal on the $500 million bond issuance, as of now, it’s $250 million for infrastructure writ large, then $225 million for capital improvements to buildings and $25 million to affordable housing. With the 3 mills, the breakdown is almost the same, 15% for public safety vehicles, police, fire - roughly 35% for maintenance of buildings, and the remainder to go to infrastructure. I think I understand part of what the administration is trying to do here, which is to say, ‘look, we need flexibility to a certain degree.’ Today it’s for police cruisers, or drainage, or the streets, but in three or four years it may have to shift to fire trucks… they don’t want to be locked into such harsh language that makes the spend inflexible.”

In addition to the ballot initiatives aimed at increasing funding for infrastructure, voters will also be asked to approve new powers for the city’s Human Rights Commission. 

“Somehow they say that’s not going to cost any more money,” Newell said. “I don’t understand how that’s going to work, because they intend it to have subpoena power, do investigations and everything else. It would seem to me that we’d be more focused on basic services right now, to the detriment of those other things. Because right now, quite frankly, and I don’t ask this to be mean, but can we really walk and chew gum? We haven’t been able to exhibit that ability in the past.”

“I would phrase it a little differently than that,” Giarrusso said, to which Newell replied, “I understand it’s a little harsh!”

“I tend to look at it as a hierarchy of needs,” the Councilmember continued. “That’s how I approach it. In the Giarrusso family budget, the mortgage gets paid first, that’s the highest need and I go down the list from there. What you’re saying is emblematic of how I feel. There are a number of things in the city that are incredibly important, whether its the police department, fire department, EMS, affordable housing, code enforcement… you can run the gamut of things that need an injection of capital to make them work better. But in my view, at this point, the singular most important issue is the drainage, because if we continue to flood, we’re not going to be a city that exists much longer. When you have limited resources and you’re looking at what your revenue is, and given that you know you have a series of options, the greatest need is toward that infrastructure as opposed to almost anything else.”

Listen to the entire interview in the player below.

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