The Dec. 10 ballot in East Baton Rouge Parish got more crowded Wednesday after the Metro Council, despite some misgivings prompted by recent historic flooding, agreed to ask voters to approve a new property tax to fund 45 projects to widen or build new roads.
The Council also will ask voters to rededicate an existing half-cent sales tax that would fund more than 100 plans to add sidewalks or other enhancements. The new property tax and the rededicated sales tax represent a continuation and expansion of the Green Light Plan voters first approved in 2005. Both have to pass on Dec. 10 to go into effect.
City-parish officials, who’ve been preparing the proposals for weeks, including holding a series of community meetings, said they are mindful of the added burden the additional 5-mill tax would place on property owners, many of whom were devastated by the flooding in August. Nevertheless, the officials argue that the road work and other improvements are vital to the economic future and quality of life of Baton Rouge.
“We have had some difficulties in Baton Rouge and they may say ‘No’, but I trust the voters of Baton Rouge,” said city-parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel.
The Metro Council vote was 8-2 in favor. Council members Buddy Amoroso and Scott Wilson, both of whom represent recently heavily flooded areas, cast the only votes against placing the issue before voters. Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel was present but did not vote and Councilman Trae Welch was absent.
Councilman John Delgado, who is one of 12 candidates running for mayor, made the motion to approve placing the 5-mill property tax on the ballot. Delgado left immediately after the vote to attend a mayoral forum at Southern University.
The proposed road tax would bookend Mayor-President Kip Holden’s three-term administration with bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements. Holden’s administration convinced voters in 2005 to pass a half-cent sales tax for road improvements under the Green Light Plan. The new 5-mill property tax would ramp up the speed of those projects and add many more starting in 2018.
The new property tax would be on the books for 30 years, through 2046. The 1/2-cent sales does not expire until 2030.
In addition to the 5-mill road tax on the Dec. 10 ballot, voters in East Baton Rouge also will decide on city-parish tax proposals for a 1.5-mill property tax for mental health services and a 2 percent occupancy tax to hotels in the parish but outside of Central, Baker and Zachary for the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District, Visit Baton Rouge and improvements to the Baton Rouge River Center.
Holden did not speak Wednesday and was not in the meeting room during the debate by the council.
Homeowners in the parish with $200,000 homes that take homestead exemption would pay $62.50 a year for the roads property tax if it’s approved by voters. The property tax is expected to generate more than $600 million over the next 10 years.
Many of the projects that would be funded by the tax are so-called “capacity projects” — designed to increase the number of vehicles that can fit on a road. The projects are being planned for the south and southeastern parts of the parish, where traffic congestion is generally the worst.
The projects include widening Lee Drive, College Drive, Hoo Shoo Too Road, Wax Road, Mickens Road and Groom Road. The money would also go toward building roads that would connect Ardenwood Drive and Lobdell Avenue; Hennessy Boulevard and Perkins Road; Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard; and Perkins Road and Picardy Avenue.
In addition, the capacity project money should improve intersections at Bluebonnet and Picardy; College and the Interstate 10 interchange; Harding Boulevard at Interstate 110 and Plank Road; Hollywood Street and Greenwell Street; Scenic Highway at Swan Avenue; and four intersections along Highland Road.
The Metro Council had delayed voting on the tax proposal at its Sept. 14 meeting, saying they needed a more-definitive list of the projects, which city officials subsequently provided.
“Two weeks ago we said they were recommended,” said Steve Bonnette, director of transportation and drainage. “Now we are saying we are committed to doing these projects.”
Daniel also sang the praises of the current Green Light program, the first road improvement program in the parish in decades.
“It was definitely not a perfect program, but it was pretty darn good and has definitely made a lot of people’s lives better,” he said.
Barker Dirmann, who spoke on behalf the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said the timing of the tax proposal is problematic, but the need for the work outweighs that concern.
“We do recognize that the timing of this millage increase is not good, but the fact of the matter is the traffic problem is not fixing itself,” Dirmann said.
Wicker, who voted yes, and Banks-Daniel, who chose not to vote, said they hesitated because they don’t trust the Holden administration. Banks-Daniel noted the upcoming mayoral election.
“I would prefer this be brought under a new administration,” she said.
William Daniel countered that the list of projects is unlikely to change, but their construction would be delayed two years if the Metro Council put off the tax election until 2018.
Councilman Joel Boé, who voted yes, said he was torn. He has concerns asking voters, many hurt badly by flooding, for more taxes. At the same time, he sees the benefit of the work done so far and the need for more work. For instance, Boé said, the intersection of Coursey and Sherwood Forest boulevards is a far cry from how bad it used to be.
“It’s amazing; I’ve forgotten what it used to be liked before it was improved,” Boé said.