JR Ball: The audacity of questioning a police tax

If Baton Rouge politicians—regardless of party affiliation—have learned anything in their unending quest for more of our money it’s this: Voters have a hard time saying “no” when the tax-dollar ask is for the elderly, veterans or first responders.

And, as we discovered with last month’s approval of the Visit Baton Rouge tax, when someone else is paying the bill.

Roy Fletcher, political guru to the local stars, once told me taxes for new roads was another voter no-brainer but the sun has clearly set on that notion.

Here’s another public trough truth about East Baton Rouge Parish: We love our dedicated taxes.

Who cares if independent taxing authorities and an ever-growing amount of locked down money creates massive budget inefficiency, voter-selected winners and losers, and—ultimately—higher taxes? Such is the price we’re apparently willing to pay to cover the tab for our historic disdain and distrust of those occupying the offices of the mayor and Metro Council.

This, in part, also explains why Baton Rouge has world-class libraries and Third World infrastructure.

One final truism: Republicans who regularly bang the “tax-and-spend liberals” drumbeat of complaint, have zero problems taxing and spending when it comes to defense—whether we’re talking enemies abroad or criminals on our streets.

“This, in part, also explains why Baton Rouge has world-class libraries and Third World infrastructure.”

So, it should come as little surprise that Metro Councilman Matt Watson, typically a tax-adverse Republican, is pushing a dedicated 8-mill property tax in incorporated Baton Rouge that would give city police officers a pay raise.

If approved, the 10-year tax—where the $75,000 homestead exemption does not apply—will generate $14.9 million in its first year, a figure that undoubtedly will increase annually due to new growth in the city and the almost guaranteed millage roll-forward every four years.

The goal, he says, is to hike the pay for beginning officers to $40,800, up from the current $32,900—veterans get a smaller bump—so that it’s easier for the department to fill its 57 vacant positions.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome says she needs more details before giving her take, but prefers everyone take a pause until after the naming of a new police chief.

Regardless, Watson hopes his councilmates will approve the still-under-construction plan in January, allowing Baton Rouge voters to have their say on the April 28 ballot day.

Forget salaries are a general fund expense, Watson tells The Advocate “there is no other way to find the money … there just isn’t.” Good to know we now have him on record as saying there’s not a spare $15 million in a city-parish budget that checks in at nearly $918 million.

Heck, Baton Rouge government probably spends that much annually on both studies as well as studies of previous studies. Seriously, no community does studies better than we do.

Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, a regular rejecter of tax proposals, is pretty much onboard with this tax, saying, “It’s hard to go against public safety. Right now, I think we’re getting close to a crisis with not being able to attract good policemen.”

“Are we willing to risk the long-term financial health of Baton Rouge and the parish with yet another dedicated tax that—among other things—will put an additional strain on a city-parish retirement system already struggling to make ends meet?”

Fair enough. Then why was it so easy to go against a public safety transportation disaster that is not only driving us road-rage crazy but is also costing the parish economic development opportunities? At what point does our traffic nightmare become “close to a crisis?”

The only council voice of public dissent to this point comes from Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wilson—one of the two members whose district does not include any part of incorporated Baton Rouge—who says police salaries need to increase but “throwing a tax at it isn’t the answer.”

Other council members say they’re supportive of the tax concept, but several add more money is also needed for mental health services, a new prison, accessible healthcare, drainage and economic development in north Baton Rouge. And, who knows, maybe even better roads.

In short, every council member—other than Wilson—seems good with the concept of hiking taxes … the trick, apparently, is finding the right taxes to hike.

Let’s cut to the chase: Who’s against giving police officers more money? No one. But are we willing to risk the long-term financial health of Baton Rouge and the parish with yet another dedicated tax that—among other things—will put an additional strain on a city-parish retirement system already struggling to make ends meet?

I’m all for hoping aboard the back-the-blue bandwagon, but not until Wilson and friends first answer these questions:

  1. Why isn’t there enough general fund money to cover the cost of these raises?
  2. Explain the reasoning behind yet another dedicated tax, given committed revenues not only limit budget flexibility but also explains one reason why there’s so little wiggle room within the general fund?
  3. If approved, what impact will these salary increases have on a city-parish retirement system that’s already struggling with an alarming unfunded accrued liability problem? How do they plan to address this issue, other than kicking the problem down the road?
  4. Was any consideration given to seeking a parishwide taxing district to fund these raises, even if that meant help from the Legislature? If property owners in the city can pay taxes for a Sheriff’s Office that largely operates outside the city, then doesn’t it make some sense to ask property owners throughout the parish to pony up for higher city police pay? After all, don’t many of these suburbanites work and play within the city limits?
  5. In exchange for this raise consideration, what reform measures within the police department—especially as it relates to the power of the union—will be required?
  6. What changes are being made to limit the amount of overtime and extra duty pay being accrued by officers, especially as it relates to increasing their retirement benefits?
  7. The tax, if approved, is for 10 years. What happens if voters in a decade opt not to renew it? Who picks up the bill should that happen? Or, is Watson and company gambling on the belief that tax renewals, like incumbent elected officials, are rarely defeated?
  8. And, on a semi-less serious note: Given the growing love affair in Baton Rouge—and across Louisiana—for user-based government financing, doesn’t it make sense that those of us paying for these salary hikes get preferential police treatment over those not paying a dime?

This last one is especially important since so many of the council members pushing this tax, if approved, actually won’t have to pay it since they live outside the city limits.

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