To Pay First Responders, New Orleans Heads To Polls

Apr 8, 2016

This Saturday New Orleanians will have a chance to vote on new taxes intended to improve public safety and settle long-standing debts to the fire department. The nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report on the vote, saying the increases are needed, lest other programs be cut.

WWNO’s Tegan Wendland talked with the group’s president, Amy Glovinsky, about what’s at stake.

Q. There are two proposals – one increases property tax by half of one percent to help increase the police force, and the other adds a quarter of one percent to fund firemens’ pensions. Both are aimed to solve problems the city has faced for a long time – give us a little background here.

A. Both of these are in the broad category of public safety. The police tax is intended to help the NOPD restore depleted ranks and really then deliver public safety service. The fire tax is intended to address a really long-standing problem having to do with the firefighter’s pension fund. Litigation that has been hanging around for a really long time and the ability of the city to honor its obligations while righting the financial status of that pension fund.

Q. Of course your group has recommended people go out and vote yes for both of these proposals – but why should they? Both measures simply increase taxes without threatening to take anything away if they fail. The firefighters settlement has been punted from mayor to mayor for years and people continue to feel dissatisfied with the police force. Why throw money at these problems?

A. It doesn’t come across as ‘throwing money at the ongoing problems.’ I say that because in both instances in regards to both police and fire, we have been able to review detailed plans for the use of the funds. For examples the police fund is going to be used for recruitment, better equipping the police, training, personnel costs – and the city didn’t just tell us that, they actually showed us the plans that demonstrate that if this tax is passed we really have the finally have the clear ability to get to the goal of a more robust police force and what that means to me and to you is that police response times will improve and generally public safety should improve because of better police performance. With regards to the fire tax – the fact that the city was able to overcome an essentially insolvent firefighter’s pension fund and settle that dispute and render that fund financially solvent – is a remarkable achievement in today’s climate. For anyone who’s watching these types of issues it’s readily apparent that across the nation, other jurisdictions are encountering this and I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s remarkable that we as a city have reached the ability to solve that problem. So why should a citizen vote in favor of this? The answer is that it’s either now or later. And the way that this tax is presented is that it’s a very doable solution to a problem that it’s finally time to put behind us.

Q. So in your role you really looked over these proposals from the city and feel that they’re a good value.

A. Yes I would think that’s fair to say. There was a lot of research, analysis, investigation and interviews that BGR undertook and that’s pretty consistent with our usual protocol. So our recommendations are not based on any simply high-level analysis or glimpse of materials. It’s actually digging pretty deeply into the issue to make sure that it is a credible, data-driven basis for the request.

Q. How much more would taxpayers actually have to pay? If someone bought a house in uptown for $350,000 last year – how much would this increase taxes next year?

A. Right, so for a $350,000 house Uptown, or really anywhere within the parish, the amount would be $262.50 in a additional tax and then for each additional $100,000 in value it would be an additional $75 in tax.

Q. What if both measures fail? Can we expect them back on the ballot during the general election in November?

A. I’m not in a position to speak to that. I can't speculate in regard to the intention of the city council or the mayor but I will tell you that with regard to the firefighter’s pension fund tax, the city is obligated to present that one to the public again for a vote, not necessarily in November, but in the coming years, to make another go at it to see if the public will approve it.

Q. So that’ll keep coming up again until we solve it.

A. Yes that’s accurate. 

Q. According to your report, the city is seeing a significant growth in revenue this year – with property and sales taxes bringing in up to 30 percent more – so why can’t we just use that additional money to fix these problems?

A. I can't speak to the city’s budgeting processes and priorities going forward and how they plan to spend that additional revenue going forward, but I will tell you that the need for these taxes speaks to a much larger issue having to do with sources of revenue and dedicated taxes in our city and an inflexibility when it comes to really a very significant portion of our tax dollars. BGR has issued a separate report called the $1 Billion Question, which really delves into this issue and I’d be happy to talk to you about that at another time.

Q. You sound like you have a real attention to detail – how has your background as an attorney prepared you for this work?

A. Certainly anytime you’re addressing an issue and needing to form a conclusion on it is really important to start at the beginning and make sure you understand the origin and basis for all of the intervening conclusions and the credibility of the facts that have been presented and then an ability to back up and see the big picture and make sure that it all makes sense.

Q. You need those skills as a reporter too.

A. I bet you do!