The Advocate

The crowded Nov. 8 ballot in East Baton Rouge Parish includes property tax renewals for the park system and St. George Fire Department, but a new property tax being sought by the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging has stirred the most heated debate in advance of the election.

The Council on Aging is asking voters parishwide to approve a 2.25-mill tax for 10 years to create a steady, independent source of funding for the agency that provides meals, operates activity centers and offers other services for local seniors.

If approved, the tax proposal would more than double COA’s budget to $7.8 million annually.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has recommended that residents cast a “no” vote, pointing in part to a failed bingo hall investment that cost COA some $200,000.

“While BRAC supports services being provided to seniors of the parish, the size of this new tax compared to previous funding levels, coupled with recent financial issues at the agency, are causes for concern,” the chamber stated.

Tasha Clark-Amar, the Council on Aging’s chief executive officer, vigorously defends COA and the tax proposition and says BRAC didn’t give her agency a chance to present data and information before making its recommendation to voters.

While BRAC noted that COA receives 40 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish’s share of statewide rental car tax revenue, Clark-Amar said her agency sees only about $3,700 a month from that revenue.

“While we appreciate these funds, it doesn’t meet the demand of the seniors in need,” she said.

COA has a waiting list of more than 5,000 seniors in desperate need of help, Clark-Amar said, noting that there are 86,000-plus seniors in the parish.

“There are about 30 parishes in this state where the constituency of their parish voted for a dedicated millage for the seniors. Why not for the seniors of EBR?” she asked. “They deserve to live independently as long as possible. Why not the capital city?”

Clark-Amar acknowledged the bingo hall did not work out financially, but said it has been converted into an event center that is used for citywide senior activities.

In the final analysis, she said, COA saves taxpayers money by keeping seniors active longer, avoiding costly institutional care as long as possible.

If approved, the new 2.25-mill COA tax would cost a homeowner with a $200,000 homestead-exempt house about $28 a year.

When it comes to the renewal of a 3.96-mill property tax for another 10 years to continue funding half of the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission’s operating and maintenance budget, BRAC has recommended voters parishwide cast a “yes” vote.

Proceeds from the renewal, estimated at $15 million annually, would not be used to build new facilities but to maintain and keep open the agency’s existing properties, which include more than 180 parks and other facilities, such as the zoo.

“Continuing excellent parks and recreation facilities and services is a key component of BRAC’s focus on quality of place initiatives that attract and retain a talented workforce,” BRAC stated in its recommendation.

BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said the agency has added 12 new community parks, five dog parks, a family-sized water park, six splash pads, an Extreme Sports Park, a growing trails system, a new conservation area, two mobile recreation units and more since 2004.

“This tax … will make sure we can continue to mow the grass, maintain ball fields, keep the lights on, turn on the water at spray pads and in learn-to-swim pools and have staff available to take care of the patrons who visit our 180-plus parks in their nationally award-winning BREC park system,” she said.

The St. George Fire Prevention District is asking the district’s voters to renew two property taxes — at 6 mills and 1.5 mills each — that go toward its operations and building improvements in the southernmost part of the parish.

The 6-mill tax would span 10 years and generate $7.2 million to help pay for the fire department’s general operations, insurance and more. The 1.5-mill tax would be in effect for only five years and bring in $1.8 million for capital improvements, equipment purchases and debt service.

St. George Fire Chief Jerry Tarleton said the two millage renewals represent nearly 47 percent of the district’s property tax revenue and roughly 41 percent of the department’s total budget.

Tarleton said the 6-mill tax, which was first approved in 1998 and allowed the fire department to transition from a volunteer to a paid/career department, is “crucial to maintaining the improvements in our level of service and insurance rating that have been gained over the past 20 years.”

Likewise, Tarleton said, renewal of the 1.5-mill tax first approved in 2002 is “very important to maintaining the progress we have made.”

Combined, he said, the two renewals would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $93 a year.