You know that feeling… when someone says or does something (and it's usually pretty small) that totally rearranges the context of a discussion or activity. For me, it happened last night during the meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council. The Council had already navigated issues dealing with downtown construction projects and changes to the pay scale for the Director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library System (more on those later) and was in the throes of discussing the rolling forward of property tax millage rates under the control of the City-Parish.
Rolling forward property taxes is a pretty damn confusing topic of discussion. Business Report Executive Editor and comrade-in-arms JR Ball has written several columns on the issue. I highly recommend you check those out if you want to understand the issue in depth. At the most basic level, the rate (think of it as the percentage of the value of your house that you pay in property taxes) changes as property is reassessed. As the intent is to keep stable the total amount of incoming property tax revenue, the rates usually go down since property values usually go up over time (obviously not always the case). Government agencies receiving property taxes, however, can elect to "roll" the millage forward to keep the rate the same, even if property values have increased, thus bringing in more revenue.
There are a lot of people that have problems with this. I don't, incidentally. The capability and procedure for government agencies to roll forward millage rates is articulated (I won't go so far as to say clearly) in Article VII, Sec 23 (C) of the Louisiana State Constitution (Ref: Page 60). Section 23 is basically the "Terms and Conditions" of property taxes (Caveat Emptor and all that). Now, if someone wants to argue that the LA Constitution should be changed, then go ahead; but complaining that rolling forward millage rates is being done without a vote of the people is just a bit disingenuous. The fact is that we the people delegated that particular power to these government entities when we approved that part of the LA State Constitution.
With the background out of the way, the discussion at the Metro Council started out as expected: Woody Jenkins, representing the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party, gave a speech opposing rolling the millage rates forward and cautioning the Council that a decision to roll forward may impact their chances in the upcoming fall election. Well, I should say Mr. Jenkins started to make a speech. Unfortunately, he ran over time and Councilwoman Denise Marcelle asked Mayor Pro-Tempore Mike Walker to cut the speaker off. Mr. Walker obliged somewhat grudgingly and that was the end of Mr. Jenkins' speech. It's a shame, as he had just started a metaphor using the movie Warhorse which I am sure would have been entertaining, if nothing else.
As entertaining as that was, it still wasn't the moment to which today's blog title refers. That moment would come about half-way through the discussion when Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis asked Marsha Hanlon, Director of the City-Parish Finance Office, what dollar impact the millage roll forward would have on an average household. After agreeing to use a house valued at $175,000 as the definition of a typical household, Mrs. Hanlon ran through the total increase. All told, the total impact for an average household was somewhere around $5 to $10 per year. Yes, that is per year and no, I am not missing zeros or forgetting where the decimal goes. I'm pretty sure I literally laughed out loud at my TV when I heard this. I know I for sure rewound the DVR a few times to make sure that was what was said. Seriously, $5 to $10 a year…
Now don't get me wrong, I've been in way more than my fair share of arguments based on nothing but principle. But that kind of debating is usually reserved for friendly arguments with close friends and acquaintances. If I'm going to take the public's time to argue for or against something, it's going to be more consequential than a tax increase equivalent to an annual trip to CC's for a large gourmet coffee. This debate looks more than a little ridiculous in light of the minimal change in property taxes, particularly considering nearly every millage rate roll forward in question dealt with public safety. With regard to Mr. Jenkins and the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party, it also doesn't help that the only property tax millage they've not opposed to date was Sheriff Sid Geautreaux's request. Sheriff Geautreaux just happens to be the only elected Republican official who has sole decision making authority over property tax millage rates in the Parish. Right or wrong, perception is reality.
What Else Happened?
Downtown Construction: After a previous deferral, the Council approved downtown projects intended to improve and supplement current construction. While a bit of a no-brainer since the money is legislatively dedicated to the purpose, it was still nice to see the Council constructively discuss and ultimately approve these funds.
Library Director Pay Plan: No proposal was approved, so the Library Director's pay scale was maintained at its current, possibly uncompetitive, level. The biggest sticking point here was that the Council had already paid a contractor to complete a salary review of City-Parish departments to include the Library system. I'm not sure what the Human Resources rules are, but perhaps the pay scale can remain where it is for now, but the Library System could offer a signing bonus to make-up the perceived difference? Then when the salary review is completed, a new pay scale could be adopted for the Director. My only hope is that someone figures something out before Mary Stein, Assistant Director of the Library System, gets burned out and retires while trying to hold down two positions. She's an asset to the community.
See you next week!
Off-Topic Tangent: I'm seeding this video in just about everything I post today. We can always use more positivity in our community and I can't think of anyone more positive than Bob "Happy Little Trees" Ross. Trust me, best 3 minutes and 24 seconds of your week.
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