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N.O. must avoid tax hike mistake made by EBR

New Orleans need not make the same mistake as Baton Rouge did with dedicating funds to its Council on Aging.

Last month, the City Council unanimously approved placing a tax proposition in front of voters next spring. The measure would add two mils to property taxes then direct that money towards the New Orleans Council on Aging. This nonprofit agency acts as a quasi-governmental entity with its latest annual report showing over 90 percent of its revenues came from government grants, of which nearly $1.4 million or around a quarter of all agency funding came from the city.

But it seems that’s not enough. The tax would raise an estimated $6 million and presumably release the current stipend for other uses by the city. Councilors didn’t even hide the fact that this would increase taxes, commenting about how this doubling of the NOCOA budget could provide more services. Some didn’t even commit to refrain putting forward any other city monies for NOCOA if voters approved it.

Only Mayor LaToya Cantrell voiced concern. She astutely pointed out that this would lock in public dollars going to a nongovernment agency with little accountability. The city would have to authorize use of this tax this way periodically, but would have no other check on the collection or use of this.

The experience of the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging with its chronic fiscal mismanagement and questionable ethical behavior still didn’t deter voters there from passing a similar measure a couple of years ago. After that hike, more controversy flared that mired the organization in lawsuits and bad publicity.

By all accounts, NOCOA has operated much more competently. Still, with essentially guaranteed funding, the dedication weakens disincentives to stray from that record.

If New Orleans wishes to increase its allotment towards this choice, it could scrape adequate funding from elsewhere. With a $36 million increase in projected revenues over this year with general fund predictions closing in on $700 million, surely an extra million or so could find its way to NOCOA with sufficient political will; the 2019 proposed budget just issued by Cantrell doesn’t have a line item identifying NOCOA funding.

Already sporting the state’s highest property tax rates, Orleanians don’t need to fork over more to local government. The Council should forgo the last step necessary to place formally the measure on the ballot, but, if it doesn’t, residents need to reject this unneeded levy.

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