Nov 162016
Sewerage and Water Board superintendent Joe Becker speaks with a resident amid flooding from a broken water main on Cohn Street in July 2013. ( file photo by Robert Morris)

Sewerage and Water Board superintendent Joe Becker speaks with a resident amid flooding from a broken water main on Cohn Street in July 2013. ( file photo by Robert Morris)

The property tax that generates one-third of the Sewerage & Water Board’s budget for draining the city of New Orleans is up for renewal on the Dec. 10 runoff ballot, and officials are pleading with neighborhoods to spread the word amid the current climate of electoral uncertainty.

“We’re very concerned that people are just going to walk into the booth, see ‘Taxes’ and vote no,” said Joe Becker, general superintendent of the Sewerage & Water Board, at a meeting of the Delachaise Neighborhood Association on Tuesday. “But if people understand the consequences what that ‘no’ vote is, I think they’ll vote intellectually and see the benefits of moving forward with this.”

Specifically, the question on the Dec. 10 ballot will ask New Orleans voters whether the city grant a 30-year extension of the 4.46-mill property tax for the city’s drainage system. It currently generates about $15 million per year, which Becker said represents around a third of the Sewerage & Water Board’s roughly $50 million for maintaining the drainage system.

(source: Louisiana Secretary of State)

(source: Louisiana Secretary of State)

Customers’ monthly water bills are separated into charges for sewer and for water, and the money generated by each of those fees can only be spent on those respective systems, Becker explained. The sole source for funding the system of drains and pumps that keep the city dry is through three property taxes, including the one up for renewal in December and two others that will remain in place until 2027 and 2031.

The cost of that 4.46-mill property tax for the owner of a $350,000 home is about $120 per year, or $10 per month, Becker said. It’s actually a slight reduction from the previous tax of 4.66 mills, he noted — not to mention the reduction in flood-insurance premiums in New Orleans as a result of improvements to the system.

“For $10 a month, you can drain the city of New Orleans,” Becker explained. “You’re probably not going to notice the drop if it fails in terms of your taxes, but you’re certainly going to notice the drop in service.”

If voters reject the tax, the agency will have to scale back its maintenance of drainage canals, reducing the amount of grass cutting and debris removal. It will also reduce the budgets for maintaining the pumping system and the electrical plant that powers the pumps — reducing reliability, and likely sacrificing its current ability to remove 32 billion gallons of water from the city in a day.

Last Monday, for example, the city received several inches of rain, but for the major flooding was mostly averted, Becker said.

“The reason it was like that is becacuse the drainage system is massive, and it works,” Becker said. “There’s not a drainage system like this anywhere on the planet. The drainage system we have is massive, it’s the envy of the world.”

As officials stress that the tax is a renewal of a major part of the current budget, not a new request for money, they have come out strongly in favor of it.

“It is imperative that we as a city support this, so we can continue on the path of strengthening the drainage in the city of New Orleans,” said City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell in September, when the council voted to place the item on the Dec. 10 ballot. “It is a renewal, not a new tax.”

The Bureau of Governmental Research also released a report Tuesday in favor of the renewal, arguing that weaknesses in the S&WB operations are not directly related to the drainage system, and that rejecting it could have devastating consequences.

“The drainage system is among the most critical components of New Orleans’ infrastructure, and the property tax is vital to the maintenance of that system,” the BGR report reads.

The drainage renewal is not the only tax proposal that New Orleans residents will face on the Dec. 10 ballot, which will be seen by most voters as the runoff in the U.S. Senate race. The city is also asking a for a new 2.5-mill, 12-year property tax to support the New Orleans Fire Department — specifically to rebuild the pension fund and resolve the long-running dispute between firefighters and the city government.

(source: Louisiana Secretary of State)

(source: Louisiana Secretary of State)

The new NOFD tax is the city’s second try, after voters rejected an attempt to bundle it with another tax to improve the police department. The $9 million per year that the new tax would generate “goes a long way” toward satisfying the city’s obligations to the firefighters, noted City Councilwoman Stacy Head — and it also enjoys the support of the BGR and the firefighters.

“We desperately need the money in the fire department,” said firefighters’ union representative Nick Felton when the city council approved the ballot measure for it at the same September meeting.

Still, as the dust settles from the widely unexpected election last week of Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States — rejecting the advice of leaders from both parties — Becker said the agency is making backup plans for a dramatically reduced drainage budget if the renewal fails. To avoid immediate layoffs, the agency would stop hiring and reduce that rely on contractors while running on reserves, he said.

Then, he would likely begin plans to craft another request to voters — just as the city had to for the firefighters’ money — and hope that they realize the severity of the reduction in services.

“We are going to do what the residents tell us to do,” Becker said. “If they want us to operate this $50 million system on $30 million, that’s what we’re going to do.”

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