Special thanks this morning to Barbara Freiberg, Scott Wilson, Buddy Amoroso, Matt Watson and Dwight Hudson, who stood up for taxpayers in Baton Rouge last night and killed, at least for the next six weeks, a measure that would have enforced an $8 million property tax increase to fund the thoroughly corrupt East Baton Rouge Council on Aging.
That $8 million tax hike was narrowly passed by voters in the fall, amid circumstances indicating relatively egregious violations of state campaign laws. The Council on Aging started a PAC, named Save Our Seniors, and used its own money to print and mail endorsement flyers to thousands of voters in the parish exhorting them to pass the tax and pull a lever for a host of Democrat candidates. The flyer in itself wasn’t a campaign violation, but using the Council on Aging’s mail permit and COA funds for printing absolutely was. There were also widespread reports of the Council on Aging busing its clients to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office for early voting in advance of the November election, which, depending on who picked up the bill, would also have been illegal.
These items, and others, are the subject of an audit of the COA’s books by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office. The results of that audit should be known within the next couple of weeks.
The audit is a problem which greatly vexes the COA – which is not a particularly transparent operation in the best of circumstances and is especially paranoid now…
The State Legislative Auditor suspects the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging broke state open meetings laws when it met, in secret, to discuss an audit Tuesday.
The board of the council dismissed anyone who was attending the meeting – including a WBRZ news crew – as it discussed the audit in “executive session.” The audit is not going to be released by the state for a few more weeks, but the council’s governing body had an advance copy to discuss.
State laws dictate what can and can’t be discussed in a private, executive session. Personnel matters, pending litigation or security of personnel can be discussed privately but other discussions must happen in an open meeting.
It does not appear that having a discussion about the council’s audit would have fallen in any category that required a secret meeting.
In the meantime, what the voters passed wasn’t actually a tax. That measure didn’t confer taxing power on the COA, but rather authorized the COA to ride on the Baton Rouge Metro Council’s taxing power to the tune of $8 million per year as the Council agreed to levy it. In other words, the Metro Council, by a majority vote, has the option to levy the full $8 million, some figure less than that, or nothing at all.
And with seven Republicans and five Democrats on the Metro Council, that means you’d need some crossover votes to enforce the tax.
Which didn’t happen last night when it came up for a vote, so all hell broke loose.
A tube of lipstick, a pair of glasses and a popcorn ball were all that remained at Democrats’ Metro Council seats Wednesday night after the group stormed out of the council meeting and forged the latest chapter in partisan and racial arguments among council members.
The dramatics came after an hour-and-a-half of debate over the embattled East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. While voters in November 2016 approved a dedicated property tax for the agency, the Metro Council was expected to vote Wednesday on levying the tax and on the agreement between the city-parish and the nonprofit agency to govern the tax.
Some council members were skeptical about proceeding with either measure before the Louisiana Legislative Auditor publicly releases an investigation focused on the Council on Aging’s campaign tactics. The agency’s quest for a property tax to more than double its annual budget raised both legal and ethical questions.
On Wednesday evening, most Republicans on the Metro Council indicated they wanted a 30-day delay to let the audit become public before giving a green light to the tax agreements. Republicans said they were not trying to prevent the tax from being collected, but they wanted to first ensure the agency had responsible spending plans, corrective actions and taxpayer protections.
Their delay would not have pushed back the timeline already in place for the Council on Aging to start receiving the tax revenue in 2018. The Council on Aging would not lose any money or revenue in the interim.
But dozens of Council on Aging clients and staffers packed into the council chambers and questioned whether the Metro Council members were unwilling to follow the will of the voters. Some spoke of the care and services they receive through the Council on Aging and said they want the nonprofit to receive more money to help more seniors.
“These seniors really need them, just like I need them,” said Frances Johnson, who described sharing her story of surviving breast cancer. “That’s my family, they’re like my extended family.”
This vote didn’t even cover the question of the swindling of the Plummer family estate by COA director Tasha Clark Amar, a matter being litigated in local courts. It merely covered the auditor’s report and the desire for five of the seven Republicans on the Council – Chandler Loupe was absent at the meeting, as was Democrat Tara Wicker, and Trae Welch for some reason crossed over to the other side – to hold off on levying the tax until having all the information about how the money would likely be spent.
We had suggested holding up the COA tax until Amar’s resignation, which could well be the shape this fight might take. Nobody expects that audit to come out well for the COA.
Before they walked out of the council meeting, the four Democrats – Donna Collins-Lewis, Chauna Banks, Erika Green and LaMont Cole – professed great love and concern for the parish’s senior citizens and admiration for the COA’s mission of ministering to them while singing Amar’s praises with a religious tone. We now know all of that was a sham, because after all a delay in authorizing the tax for another month wouldn’t affect the tax’s timeline. What they wanted was to ram through Council authorization and thus put taxpayers on the hook for funding the political machine benefiting Democrat politicians the COA has become. Once the tax is authorized, getting it off the books before its 10-year sunset period is nearly impossible, and therefore Collins-Lewis, Banks and the North Baton Rouge political mob would have a publicly-funded honey pot to draw from.
Which is all they care about. They proved it last night. Hopefully the Republicans on the Metro Council will maintain the stiff spine they showed last night and refuse to levy that tax until there is reason to believe the money won’t be used for nefarious purposes, meaning “when Amar and the bulk of the COA’s board have been dismissed.”
But thanks to the walkout, and this is the most entertaining part of the story, the authorization of the tax will now be delayed by 60 days, not the 30 the Republicans were asking for. Perhaps we should give thanks for the tactical genius of the North Baton Rouge political mob.