Six candidates for the New Orleans City Council — including two sitting councilmen — promised on Tuesday night to resume the effort to begin taxing property owned by nonprofits but used for commercial purposes or left blighted, and at least one Council hopeful suggested increasing the amount exempted for owner-occupied homes.
The candidates — District D incumbent councilman Jared Brossett, his challenger Joel Jackson, At-Large Councilman Jason Williams and at-large candidates David Nowak, Joe Bouie and Kenneth Cutno — met Tuesday night before the Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association, and among the questions they were asked was how they feel about the current tax exemptions for all properties owned by nonprofits, regardless of whether they are being rented out to commercial entities or deteriorating from neglect. A Tax Fairness Commission created by Mayor Mitch Landrieu near the beginning of his term recommended seeking permission from the state legislature to tax such properties, but the effort never got off the ground.
At-Large Councilman Jason Williams, an incumbent, said it was “just silly” that major landowning institutions like the Archdiocese of New Orleans don’t directly contribute to the tax rolls. He suggested that in some communities, universities and other nonprofits are charged a “Payment in Lieu of Taxes,” which serves a similar role, and that the topic formed the substance of the very first conversation he had with new Tulane President Michael Fitts.
“The idea that Tulane University is not going to call our fire department or our police is just silly,” Williams said. “… I’ve committed myself to going to Baton Rouge to lobby for that change, because that could make a really big difference in the city of New Orleans.”
David Gregory Nowak, a challenger to Williams, also noted the concern that so many properties are not taxed, but didn’t trust the state to allow New Orleans to make that change.
“I have been extremely disappointed in the Louisiana state legislature, and I don’t want to hedge any bets on that,” Nowak said. He added that he would oppose any effort to create a stormwater fee, however, because it is “a fundamental flaw to think of water falling sky as a waste product instead of a resource.”
Dr. Joe Bouie, a candidate for the other At-Large seat which is being vacated by Councilwoman Stacy Head, urged caution in taxing nonprofits, because the exemption is intended to help them fund their operations. But in cases when they are clearly engaging in commercial activity, he said, they should be taxed.
“If we learn that there are nonprofits who actually are making a profit with a commercial piece, then I think we should adjust that,” Bouie said, but he would prefer first to rededicate some existing taxes such as those that go to the Convention Center back into the city budget.
Kenneth Cutno, one of Bouie’s opponents, agreed that some nonprofits deserve tax exemptions for properties they are using, but he was against allowing exemptions for the other properties that they own. He also cited opposition to short-term rentals in his answer, saying “It’s wrong to motel our neighborhoods for the tourists,” and said he would also expedite returning city-owned blighted properties to the tax rolls.
Helena Moreno, a third candidate for the open seat against Bouie and Cutno, did not attend the forum. She had sought to send a representative, organizers said, but they felt that would be unfair to the other candidates who showed up in person.
Joel Jackson, who is seeking the District D seat held by Councilman Jared Brossett, said he understands the value of nonprofits because he works for one, but also recognizes the need to tax them for property not being used as part of their mission.
Further, Jackson said, he would also seek to increase the homestead exemption, which exempts residents from paying property taxes on the first $75,000 of the value of their homes. Increasing the exemption, he said, would directly bring down taxes on individual homeowners.
“We shouldn’t feel beholden to traditions of government and how we tax nonprofit organizations because that’s how we’ve always done it,” Jackson said. “… In terms of just regular folks, I think we need to increase the homestead exemption to bring down some taxes on some folks, so they aren’t displaced from their neighborhoods.”
Brossett said he had not looked into the idea of increasing a homestead exemption, but thought returning to the state legislature to seek the change allowing nonprofits to be taxed was a better first priority.
“I think that we have to look at the nonprofits that are using our streets, our infrastructure for commercial purposes,” Brossett said. “Everybody has to share in paying for city services.”