Taxes, priorities and running government

We know there will be a new CATS tax on the ballot this April. But will there be a tax to fight crime this fall? And what about new taxes in 2013? What is ahead for East Baton Rouge Parish? Instead of talking about each of these proposed tax issues one at a time, maybe our community needs a conversation about taxes, our priorities and what we expect from our government—and how it is run.

I hope you got to read Executive Editor JR Ball’s column in the last issue (“Random Thoughts,” Jan. 24). If not, you should pull it up here. I agree with what he wrote and have a few things to add as the vote approaches this April.

I, too, was surprised that the “crime fighting committee” was not ready. Let’s be honest, crime is a much greater concern to voters right now. You and I know that. And a big CATS tax could impact chances of a tax for crime reduction this fall, though any tax getting passed will be tough in a tight economy.

The way CATS set up the vote, cutting Central out of it and putting Baker and Zachary in separate taxing districts from Baton Rouge (Ball hinted it was “gerrymandering”), is a bit like the old trick to schedule a tax election in July to assure a favorable outcome.

This tax, which exempts the homestead so all property owners will pay, is hefty compared to many previous taxes. As Ball notes, at “an eye-popping 10.6 mills, the proposal will generate roughly $18.4 million annually.” Supporters can’t use the old argument, “You will only pay about the cost of a hamburger or cup of coffee once a month.” No, with this tax it will be “a juicy steak and a martini.”

Let me give you some numbers. For a $200,000 house, it’s $212 per year; a $250,000 home, $265 per year or $22 every month; a $300,000 residence, $318 annually; a $500,000 house, $530 a year or more than $44 per month; an $800,000 home, $848 or nearly $71 a month; and if you happen to be a very successful executive or professional and live in a $1 million residence (and already pay a lot of business and personal taxes), you will get to pay an additional $1,060 per year or more than $88 per month to CATS.

Will homebuyers start asking Realtors when they buy a home, “How much is the CATS tax on this house a year?” just as they ask about the utility bill? For example, homeowners in Riverbend and Southdowns will pay the tax, but homeowners in Village St. George or Willow Grove won’t.

Now that we are talking real numbers, you might want to look a little closer at the CATS tax and be asking your elected officials what other taxes will be on the ballot in the future. What does the whole picture look like in East Baton Rouge? The crime committee will be back with its proposal, and it won’t be small. And I heard Mayor-President Kip Holden say last week that if it hadn’t been for the money that will be generated for the city-parish by the upcoming bowling tournament (see below), he would have had to raise taxes or cut services and staff. Well, in 2013 there will be no bowling tournament. Is he talking a tax proposal for next year? Wouldn’t it be wise to ask those questions now, before we vote in April?

Other cities have raised their taxes in the past time and time again. They found out it caused people to move out of the cities to the suburbs or outlying counties (or parishes in our case) to avoid the taxes. For example, I heard this from Mayor Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis. And then the city had to raise them more on the remaining residents and businesses—a downward spiral. Goldsmith reversed that, lowered taxes and created incentives for businesses to come back, creating economic activity that “grew the pie.”

My point is, we can’t just have everyone proposing—or asking us to pass—a new tax in a vacuum. We need to ask, what is the big picture? And then voters must decide their priorities, both on any new taxes and on eliminating other government services to cover the costs without new taxes. Tough choices, but this alternative must be an option instead of just asking property owners to pay more and more.

What are our priority government services? And are we delivering them in the most efficient manner, or can we privatize and save? How much innovation is there in government? Are we still operating as we did 20 and 30 years ago? (No one in business is.) And are there some services we just can’t provide anymore and must eliminate? Elected officials just can’t always turn to the taxpayer and say, “Can you pay it?”

As Ball noted, CATS “pounced” because it claims it will run out of money this summer. If it’s true, how did they arrive at the edge of this cliff? Will the mayor and council decide it is a priority service and spend some of the “bowling money”? I just believe, as a community, before we pass another tax now or in the fall, it is only fair to voters to put all proposed taxes on the table (including upcoming rollbacks)—and all our government services, too. Taxpayers and elected officials should have a dialogue about the big picture, ask some tough questions and set priorities for this decade looking forward, not just repeating what we did in the past. The number of state government employees has been reduced in the last four years to less than we had 20 years ago. Where does our city-parish employee number stand compared to 1992?

If the plan is just to keep asking taxpayers for a bailout or to pick up the tab once again to avoid change, layoffs or budget cuts, those arguing for new taxes are setting themselves up for disappointment. The people and taxpayers of East Baton Rouge deserve a better plan and better leadership than that.

Starting this week there will be many guests arriving in town for the United States Bowling Congress 2012 Open Championships. The tournament runs from Feb. 11 to July 10 and will attract more than 100,000 visitors (60,000 of those will be bowling).

This all means big business for Baton Rouge, with a reported economic impact of $75 million to $100 million. Holden described it as “a gold mine in this economy,” and said because of that 2012 “should be the city’s most profitable year since I’ve been mayor.”

Brian Lewis, USBC managing director of tournaments, said, “We’re excited about being back in Baton Rouge, and we can’t wait for the bowlers to see all of the changes to the city and the River Center since we were here in 2005.” He complimented the Capital City, saying, “We truly enjoyed the Southern hospitality the first time around, and the community has rolled out the red carpet for us again this year.”

Hats off to Holden, the Metro Council and Paul Arrigo at Visit Baton Rouge for this encore. We are fortunate to have the bowlers back. Let’s all be on the lookout these next five months for the “bowling shirts” around town—and thank them for coming to Baton Rouge.

Last week, around 800 Louisiana citizens gathered in Baton Rouge to be inspired by education reform leaders including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Joel Klein, Tony Bennett, Howard Fuller—and our own Gov. Bobby Jindal. Other speakers included U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Superintendent John White. The event was the idea of Baton Rouge Rep. Steve Carter, and he deserves “a big thanks.” Kudos also to all the groups and sponsors involved.

In my last column (“Innovate or die,” Jan. 23), I indicated that both Encyclopedia Britannica and Kodak had filed bankruptcy. Encyclopedia Britannica did have a dramatic decline in revenue and was sold in 1996, but it never filed for bankruptcy. I apologize for the error.

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