Friday, May 10, 2013

Tension, Finger Pointing, Not A Lot Of Answers At JP Council Meeting

There was an old TV ad for Clairol women’s hair coloring that showed a beautiful woman and, referring to her hair color, asked the provocative question: “Does she or doesn’t she?” While they were asking if the woman artificially colored her hair, the question still made you wonder.

Leading up to yesterday’s “Emergency” Jefferson Parish Council meeting regarding the failure of two property taxes last week, the question in Jefferson Parish was: Will they or won’t they?
Would the Council vote to put the taxes back on the ballot in time for the next round of tax bills at the old rate or the new rolled-back rate or would they just hold off until next year and make Parish President John Young figure out how to fill a $19 Million hole?

I guess it couldn’t have been too much of an “Emergency” because we’re still waiting for an answer.
But, we do know what an “Emergency” is.

In fact, we may be hearing that word more in the very near future.
But, the two hours of finger pointing, ganging up on President Young or “fact finding” as Councilman Chris Roberts called it, was interesting to say the least.

If you don’t have time to watch the Council replay and want a blow-by-blow of the meeting,’s Manuel Torres did a great job providing the Reader’s Digest version with live updates from the meeting.
Councilman Roberts, a frequent critic of President Young and an ardent supporter of the CCC toll extension, questioned if the Young Administration had made any presentations to civic associations to get their support for the taxes.

"The feedback I'm getting from the business community and civic associations is that they were in the dark," Roberts said.
Of course, Roberts failed to mention that, since he supported the CCC toll, he was a virtual ghost in the months leading up to the May 4th vote. While I am not intimately involved with Councilman Roberts’ schedule, I don’t recall hearing him do any radio or TV interviews or speaking to groups telling voters to approve the taxes and of their importance to JP operations.

Roberts also voted to put the “expired” taxes on the ballot, along with the rest of the Council.
So, for him to question why the Young Administration put them on the ballot late or how much effort they spent selling the taxes to voters is a pretty dubious argument.

They say that if you say something often enough, even if it’s not true, you start to believe it and you get others to believe it too.
That was the takeaway from this Council meeting. Keep saying that the Young Administration, and only the Young Administration, botched this and keep deflecting blame and not accepting responsibility.

Appearing for the Prosecution: Councilman Roberts, Assessor Tom Capella and Sheriff Newell Normand, aka “The Usual Suspects”.
Now, to be sure, if the taxes expired in December 2012, clearly they should have been on the ballot last year despite JP’s tradition of renewing property taxes after they technically expired but before the next tax cycle.

"There's somebody in parish government that ought to know when these things are coming up for renewal," Councilman Roberts said.
And he’s right. Of course he also failed to mention that the Council (which voted to put these taxes on the ballot), Assessor Capella and Sheriff Normand also should know when taxes are up for renewal.  If you’re assessing property taxes as Capella does, and collecting them, as Normand does, it might be a good idea if you knew what you were assessing and collecting too.

Just as clearly, the taxes should have been put on the ballot at their current rate and not at their original, higher rate.
But for Roberts, Capella and Normand, along with the rest of the Council, to put all of the blame on the Young Administration and not accept any responsibility for their roles in this tax debacle stretches the bounds of credibility.

While some Council members grumbled about the negative feelings towards the CCC toll revote impacting voters on these tax propositions, I suspect that Assessor Capella’s last minute letter to homeowners might have had a larger role in the sinking of these taxes than anything.
While it is traditional for most government agencies except the JPSO and Sheriff Newell “I never met a tax that I rolled-back – I need more money for Public Safety” Normand, Capella’s letter rightly pointed out that the property taxes were being renewed at the old rate of 5 mills instead of the rolled-back rate of 3.58 and 3.54 mills.

Theoretically, if the Council didn’t roll-back the taxes as they have always done (and Capella did when he was on the JP Council), this could have resulted in a tax increase for property owners.
Could that have been made clearer in the “selling” of the taxes? Sure and the language on the ballot could have also been clearer.

But, the Parish Council still approved these taxes. They hired the bond attorney and approved his language for the ballot (on the recommendation of President Young).
I’m also relatively certain that, before it came before the Council, Assessor Capella and Sheriff Normand, the Chief Tax Collector in Jefferson Parish, also reviewed the language and approved it.

Look, for many reasons, the property taxes failed. Rather than continue to play the blame game, why don’t our elected officials provide a solution? There’s clearly enough blame to go around and no JP elected official is covered in enough Teflon to deflect it.
At the moment, there are two viable solutions, as well as a third option proposed by Councilman Roberts. The problem is, the Council is divided and there's no clear-cut support for any of them. In fact, Councilwoman Cynthia Sheng said she needs more time to consider the options.

District 2 Councilman Paul Johnston will seek the Council’s approval to put the taxes back on the ballot at the current rate.
District 3 Councilman Mark Spears will call for an emergency declaration and change the wording to read “up to 5 mills” while promising to keep the rates at 3.58 and 3.54 mills.

Both would put the taxes on the October 19th ballot in time for the next round of property tax bills.
According to the T-P, Councilman Roberts favors punting on the taxes until 2014 and forcing the Young Administration to cut capital projects for water and sewerage. This would also result in Jefferson Parish possibly losing a $35 Million low-interest state loan for sewerage repairs.  

While I always favor cutting government, Councilman Roberts’ proposal is punitive. Hurting the Parish just to hurt President Young won’t help.  
In this era when citizens have a huge mistrust of government, especially in Jefferson Parish, I think Councilman Johnston’s plan makes the most sense and has the greatest possibility of success.

But hey, what do I know? I thought 4th grade finger-pointing went out of style long ago.