Metro Council walkout delays Council on Aging, north Baton Rouge taxes

    An impassioned debate between Metro Council members late Wednesday over the embattled East Baton Rouge Council on Aging and its new dedicated tax ended in a walkout, delaying the implementation of both the COA tax and, inadvertently, a tax voters approved in December to fund the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District.

    Four Democrats—Chauna Banks, Erika Green, Donna Collins-Lewis and LaMont Cole—abruptly walked out of the council meeting before a vote to delay for 30 days the levying of the COA tax voters approved in November. As a result, the council lost a quorum, effectively ending the meeting.

    State rules dictate a specific schedule for publicly announcing and levying taxes. Because of the walkout, the COA tax will have to be publicly announced again, delaying the levying process by 60 days. In addition, the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District’s 2% hotel occupancy tax—which was also on Wednesday’s agenda and yet to be discussed—also will be pushed back.

    “Now this just creates a situation for us,” says Ron Smith, the development district’s board chairman. “We hope it won’t be a serious problem, but we’re just going to have to look for some temporary, short-term funding.”

    The BRNEDD was formed last year to spur economic growth in the historically underserved northern part of the city-parish. North Baton Rouge Voters in December approved a 2% hotel occupancy tax to help fund the district.

    The district’s board has delayed hiring a permanent executive director until its tax money comes in. Board members were planning to choose a director in late June or early July, but now that process will be delayed until August or September.

    Despite the walkout, the COA’s tax money will likely not be delayed, council members say, because it is a property tax and the assessor is expected to have enough time to add it to the tax rolls. The money is expected to begin flowing to the COA in January 2018.

    The contentious council meeting last night exposed frayed relationships between council members and a wide range of opinions on how to handle implementing a tax that voters approved for an agency with questions swirling about its management and campaign tactics. The rest of the items on the agenda the council did not consider before the walkout will be heard later this month.

    Daily Report reached out to all council members who were present at last night’s meeting, and several Republicans who responded say they are not aiming to revoke the tax or levy anything less than the 2.25 mills that voters approved.

    “It’s not about people. It’s not about the director. It’s about the program. It’s about what the program does for people,” says Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg, a Republican. “What I’d like to see is a financial plan, a plan for personnel, facilities, for how the agency will be accountable for the dollars that it spends.”

    The council’s Democrats did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. But in a statement issued late last night, Banks, Green, Collins-Lewis and Cole say the Republicans’ proposal to defer the tax for a month was an affront to democracy.

    “The integrity of the will of the people was being challenged by an attempt to prevent a millage from going forward as approved by YOU, the voters in November of 2016,” the statement says. “We could not longer sit and allow democracy to be compromised under our watch, on this day.”

    Republican Councilman Trae Welch, who voted to levy the tax last night, says he does think the COA needs better oversight, but that the Metro Council should have considered that before it put the tax on the ballot in the first place.
    “This is Civics 101,” he says. “There’s a vote, it passed, people spoke. I feel as if the elected representatives should do what the voters voted for … whether I like it or not.”

    Before the council considered levying the tax, it decided to defer for 30 days the city-parish’s cooperative endeavor agreement with the COA on an 8-2 vote. Some council members are hoping to add stronger protections to the agreement, and a majority wanted to wait until an investigative audit comes out before signing off on it.

    Council members Tara Wicker and Chandler Loupe were absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

    —Sam Karlin

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