LOUISIANA – Mayor Marvin Brown walked Louisiana’s Rotary Club through the city’s financial situation and the steps city leaders hope will improve it at the club’s regular meeting Thursday.
Brown described the discussion with Rotary as a “test run” of the conversations backers of a set of proposed tax increases will need to have to secure public support.
Revenue is down, Brown emphasized. Sales tax revenue has declined 5.5 percent over the last five years and the assessed value of property in the city has declined two percent, driving down the money generated through property taxes. Criminal justice reform measures and an under-staffed police department has limited the city’s ability to raise money from fines and fees. Brown said the city has seen a decline of almost $100,000 from the city’s municipal court.
All in all, Brown calculated that the city’s revenue has dropped by 20 percent over the last ten years — and by a third, if rising costs are factored in.
The city has already found substantial savings — and would have to look for more if something was not done, Brown said.
“Animal control, building code [enforcement], police department — because we can’t operate in the red. If the revenues keep going down, we’re going to have to cut something else,” Brown said.
As additional cuts are required, Brown said his next recommendation to the city council would be to consider cutting the city’s one-person animal control department.
In the interim, city services suffer, Brown said: a police department short officers and vehicles, an aging fleet of city vehicles and crumbling city streets.
There are no easy way around these problems, Brown argued. Since the employers already in Louisiana struggle to find workers, Brown said, the city could not bet on attracting new industry. Pursuing unpaid taxes is often legally challenging and ultimately fruitless.
It was that set of considerations — rising prices, declining revenues and no obvious other way to make up the difference — that led city leaders to consider putting a tax increase before the voters, Brown said.
The slate of proposed tax increases first put forward this summer has been adjusted as the council examined the city’s financial needs and legal options. On Monday’s City Council committees meeting, Council Finance Committee Chair Susan Fregeau presented numbers that would seen an increase of 47 cents per $100 of assessed property value—27 cents in support of the city’s general fund, and 20 cents for a dedicated fund supporting the city’s parks, taking those costs off the city’s budget. Louisiana residents currently pay 73 cents toward the general fund and 10 cents in support of the city library.
Those numbers, Fregeau stressed are subject to change. She told the council she planned to consult with the Louisiana Public Library District about putting a levy before the voters to replace the money the city currently pays from its general fund to support the library.
The general levy increase would need a simple majority when it appears on the budget. The park board would require a two-thirds majority. The City Council plans to draw up language for the county clerk at a Tuesday, Dec. 17 City Council meeting, in order to place the proposals on the April ballot.
Fregeau told the council Monday that she and the mayor had discussed holding ward-by-ward town halls to further discuss the proposal with voters.
Fregeau presented the Council with a new set of estimates about what the proposed taxes would cost different property owners. The estimates ranged from an 888-square foot home whose owner would pay another $9.02 a year, to the owner of a 4,600-square foot home who would pay another $183.86. On average, hones under 3,500 square feet in her sample would pay another $47.20 a year.
Brown said Thursday that he thought Louisiana should also consider creating a fire protection district with a new, dedicated tax funding it—a longer term process.
“I think there are pretty clear priorities [if the taxes passed]. Public safety and code enforcement. Sufficient employee compensation, because our employees are pretty under-paid, frankly, and we’re going to start losing people. And the rolling stock issue—that needs to addressed,” Brown said.
Despite the challenges Louisiana faced, Brown opened his remarks to Rotary with a note of optimism, stressing the town’s advantages.
“It’s going to sound really bad, some of the things I have to say. But I just want everyone to remember that this is still a really great place to live,” Brown said.
But the city’s quality of life, Brown emphasized, came at a cost.
“You can either pay for it in one way or the other. You can pay to have better streets and protection, or you can pay for it by having your home values decrease. There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Brown said.