Milling around on taxes
Woody Jenkins, the head of the East Baton Rouge Republican Party, has a logic problem when it comes to the rolling forward of property tax millage rates by local taxing authorities. Sometimes he believes this action is a backdoor tax hike without the approval of voters. Other times he believes this action is perfectly acceptable.
When BREC officials met in late June to discuss whether or not to roll forward the park department's property tax millage rate, Jenkins decried the proposal that would generate an additional $1.5 million next year for the parks department. It's his view—and mine—that rolling tax rates forward to generate higher tax revenue is nothing more than a tax increase that sidesteps a vote of the people.
Moreover, some of these government agencies, such as BREC and the library system, are given the right to increase the millage rate despite the fact that not a single administrator or board member is elected to their respective position. This ostensibly passes constitutional muster since these people are appointed by elected officials. Maybe. But, to me, this is taxation without representation. That, however, is not a position that Jenkins, to my knowledge, has put forth.
Philosophical arguments aside, BREC's proposal to hike tax rates, needing two-thirds approval, failed largely because three commissioners were conveniently absent from the meeting. The cash-flush library system, with little fanfare and even less controversy, has also decided not to roll forward its millage rate.
Less than two weeks after celebrating his victory over BREC, Jenkins did a 180, supporting the unilateral decision by Sheriff Sid Gautreaux to roll that department's millage rate higher. Gautreaux says his department needs the additional $1.5 million to pay salaries and benefits. Jenkins told the daily newspaper the millage hike was OK by him and the 17-member executive committee of the parish's Republican Party because the sheriff has done a “great job” fighting crime and the crime-fighting department could use the money.
“I think if this were to go to the voters,” Jenkins was quoted as saying, “it would pass.”
Then, at a July 18 Metro Council committee meeting, as the topic of EMS and four fire districts requesting permission to roll forward property tax rates was being discussed, Jenkins objected, saying such tax increases should be put to a vote. “If they really need it,” Jenkins said, “then the people ought to be able to approve it.” The issue will be decided when the full council meets this week.
So, in Woody's world, BREC, the library system, EMS and fire departments are wrong to roll forward their millage rates without first going to the voters, but the sheriff doing the same thing is right and just?
A quick primer on property taxes: The tax assessor is required to reassess property values every four years. If the total property value increases, then the millage rate is reduced so that the taxing agency earns the same amount of money as the previous year. Typically, property tax collections increase every year because of commercial and residential property selling at a higher than assessed price as well as new houses and businesses coming into the market. It is possible, however, since tax elections are based on dollars and not the millage rate, that the assessor could increase the millage rate if it's determined property values decreased over a four-year period. So while property taxes are based on dollars desired by government, there's a quirk in the state constitution that allows taxing agencies to vote and roll forward the millage rate to its original level, effectively generating new tax dollars off an existing tax.
Jenkins is right when he says it's wrong for a government agency to collect new money off an existing tax without first getting voter approval. Jenkins is wrong when he abandons that position for what can only be political reasons.
Convictions have a tendency to be difficult for people, especially in the realms of politics and religion. If you believe something is wrong—like concocted special-interest taxing districts or the rolling forward of millage rates without a vote of the people—then it's always wrong. Changing one's view based on friendship or political gain only lessens credibility.
Allowing taxing entities to roll forward their millage rates without first asking voters may be legal, but it's wrong—consistently wrong.
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