Accountability kept Bossier City in line with taxpayer interests. Lack of it led the Cypress-Black Bayou Recreation and Water Conservation District to betray them.
Last week, the Bossier City Council met to deal with the city’s property tax millages in the wake of reassessment. The statewide version that occurs every presidential election year requires that local government entities adjust their rates in response so that the total amount paid in from that action remains the same, either down (if values increase) or up (if values decrease). However, in another subsequent vote (or proclamation, in the case of single executives that solely helm a government), any rate below the maximum allowed may be adopted, although increasing the adjusted rates (termed a “roll forward”) require a two-thirds supermajority to enact.
The city had courted controversy a month earlier when a ballot item to renew one of the three taxes subject to elections (the fourth doesn’t require one and lasts into perpetuity, as permitted by the Constitution) asked voters to increase the maximum allowed over the previous 6 mill rate to 6.19 mills. Because of a reassessment that showed a decrease four years earlier, the Council took the opportunity to jack taxes up then, and convinced enough voters to ratify that increase in that election.
But in the light of what appears to be a significant increase through reassessment, at the last meeting the Council didn’t roll forward and offered up reduced rates (all at their current maximums), dropping its general tax from 5.76 to 5.57, its public safety general operations tax from 8.61 to 8.32, it public safety largely salaries tax (the one expiring and renewed) from 6.19 to 5.98, and its other public safety largely salaries tax from 2.80 to 2.71, for a total of 22.58. Apparently somewhat stung by criticism over asking voters for the higher renewal rate, after the vote the Council instructed the city’s finance director to post on its website (although in a manner difficult to locate these) rates on the four items going back decades.
Of course, all members of the Council plus Republican Mayor Lo Walker are up for reelection next spring, which must have had something to do with eschewing any rolling forward. Although this publicizing of past rates to aid their electoral chances might not exactly have turned out the way they hoped, for while the table shows a decline in rates over time, despite rising property values the aggregate rate is higher now than it was in 2008 and through the first three years of this current term it was 23.36, or just a hundredth lower than prior to 2008.
At least they saved taxpayers money, which the Board of Commissioners for Cypress-Black Bayou couldn’t claim. That entity, which governs the environs around these bodies of water and provides recreation opportunities, draws its revenues from assessments on property owners around it, fees from users, and from a property tax levied on most property owners in Bossier Parish.
For years, despite pledges from commissioners and executive director Robert Berry (who also serves as a commissioner in an apparent contravention of the law and has been sued for that) to cut spending in response to a persistent budget deficit, with the district still losing money last year it put on the ballot a tax increase from 1.56 to 3 mills. Voters soundly rejected that.
The five commissioners, however, aren’t elected. Berry is appointed by the Bossier Parish Police Jury, Pres. Jerry Fowler by the Bossier Parish School Board, Vice Pres. Mel Allen by the Bossier Levee District (itself comprised of appointees), Sec. Gary Wyche by Benton, and member Walter Bigby by Bossier City. They serve five-year terms ending Jul. 31 staggered annually.
And they got their revenge on taxpayers by rolling forward the rate in unanimous fashion (although Wyche was absent) to stay at the maximum, which otherwise would have declined to 1.51 mills. Fowler called the legally-required announcement “misleading” because its wording that commissioners proposed raising rates past the required lowering implied that a higher rate than current would be paid. “This is not an increase,” from what voters had approved, he declared – wrongly.
Actually, the original item passed in 2014 was for 1.54, but the maximum became adjusted upwards to 1.56 as a result of the 2016 reassessment. And, it’s no comfort to homeowners on fixed incomes to see their property taxes paid rise even slightly as a result of the Board’s vote, particularly when the economy suffers from the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.
Especially when the Board has so many other options to tighten its belt, including reducing Berry’s six-figure salary that sucks in more than one in ten cents in spending, or to pursue more creative revenue-raising strategies (if not simply raising fees) and more efficient spending. Only a small proportion of taxpayers ever use the facilities, so why must they cough up more when they already pay for more than half of expenditures?
Unfortunately, this is the risk taken when accountability becomes so indirect. Prior to its 2024 extinction short of rejecting the tax if above 1.50 mills at renewal, all taxpayers can do now is to complain to the various entities of elected officials as well as to the Levee District appointees (and perhaps to the guy who appoints them, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards) either to lean on their Board appointees to do the right thing (which the unelected Levee District board members did by not rolling forward) or to replace them.