With barely more than a week before the Dec. 10 election, officials with the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans are making their final effort to spread the word about voting to renew a tax that provides the agency with a third of its budget for draining the city.
For voters in New Orleans, the short ballot on the Dec. 10 election will include runoffs in the U.S. Senate race and a local judicial seat, as well as two tax questions — whether to create a new tax to repay the city’s obligation to the firefighters’ pension, and whether to renew a property tax that pays for the S&WB drainage services.
The S&WB has three functions, each with its own, separate funding source, General Superintendent Joe Becker explained to the Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association on Thursday evening. Water and sewer services are each paid for by their respective fees on residents’ monthly bills, Becker said, but the drainage system across the city of New Orleans is paid for by a series of property taxes that raise about $50 million annually.
One of those taxes that generates roughly $15 million of that total is set to expire at the end of the year, unless residents vote to renew it on Dec. 10. The property tax is actually a slight reduction — from 4.66 mills now to 4.46 mills starting next year — and costs about $125 per year for a home valued at $350,000, he said.
“If it doesn’t pass on Dec. 10, then for Jan. 1 there’s going to be an immediate $15 million hit on our drainage budget,” Becker said.
If it fails, residents may not notice that small of a reduction in their property taxes, Becker said — but they will notice the decrease in drainage service. If the tax fails, the drainage budget will be cut by a nearly a third — primarily in maintenance, such as reducing the grass cutting and debris removal from the open drainage canals, Becker said. Over time, the agency will have to cut its 250 to 300 employees and contractors in the drainage division by a third as well, he said.
The drainage system is unique in the world, and can remove an inch of rainfall from city streets in the first hour, followed by a half an inch every subsequent hour. Together, the 120 pumps at 24 pumping stations could fill a swimming pool in 1.5 seconds, and many areas of the city — such as Lakeview and New Orleans East — are habitable specifically because of this pumping capacity.
“Nowhere else on the planet do they have a drainage system that compares to what the Sewerage and Water Board is providing the city of New Orleans,” Becker said. “We need it. We get more rain that just about anywhere in the country. We’re below sea level, and we’re surrounded by water. … The footprint of the city of New Orleans today is dependent on the drainage system the S&WB is operating.”
Audubon Riverside is the latest neighborhood group to get a visit from Becker as he seeks to spread the word about the importance of tax. He made a similar pitch to the Delachaise Neighborhood Association in November, and said he has personally visited with about a dozen different neighborhoods, while executive director Cedric Grant has visited about a half dozen more. They’ve also visited university groups and engineering firms, trying to enlist their help in convincing the public to renew the tax, he said.
While the Audubon Riverside board members had their own concerns about the efficacy of the S&WB in some respects — especially in how difficult it can be to get information about the status of repair jobs — all of those present agreed that renewing the drainage tax is important. With their support, Becker noted, they join endorsements from the Bureau of Governmental Research as well as the Times-Picayune, The Advocate and Gambit newspapers.
“Living in New Orleans, I’m probably generally in favor of drainage,” said Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association president John Chappell. “For me, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Most of the groups that Becker has spoken to have been likewise receptive, he said, but he is concerned about the people who will walk into the voting booth, see “tax” and vote “no” without considering what the money is used for.
“We’re very concerned because we think the deck is kind of stacked against us. People are paying a lot of taxes, and they don’t like paying taxes,” Becker says. “I want as many people as possible voting, but I want them to understand what they’re voting for.”
The association also discussed a handful of other topics in Thursday night’s meeting.
- Chappell updated the board on his research into the cost of creating more shade at Alma Peters Park.
- The board heard a brief update on the idea of organizing an effort to create a property-tax to hire off-duty police officers for extra security patrols If the neighborhood decides to pursue it, they’ll have to begin working right after the first of the year, they said.
- Jim Reese updated the board on his effort to create signs with association’s “ARNA” logo on Magazine Street and at the neighborhood’s two small parks.
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.