NEW ORLEANS - With the number of police officers at a historic low, city officials agree, New Orleans needs more cops on the streets.
But courts have decided that the city is also on the hook to pay millions of dollars to support the firefighters pension fund, as well as pay for two federal consent decrees to improve the jail and police department.
“We don't know yet how much those judgments are going to cost, we're trying to prepare,” said Andy Kopplin, First Deputy Mayor and New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer.
That’s why the city is asking the state legislature to allow residents to vote on three new tax hikes in November that could help pay for the pension fund and consent decrees, as well as bolster the police department.
If the measures go through, a pack of cigarettes or other tobacco products would cost 75 cents more for in New Orleans, the city's hotel tax would increase, and property taxes to support police and firefighters could rise about $30 a year if you own a $200,000 home.
“The alternative is going to be to reduce services, you either have revenues to pay for these obligations or you reduce services,” said Kopplin.
Experts say pushing the tax measures through will be a tough battle. First, the legislature would have to approve all three measures. Then, Governor Bobby Jindal would have to green light both the tobacco and hotel tax increases. Then, the city council would have to decide whether to put the measures on the local ballot before voters could decide whether to approve the tax measures.
“That's going to be the tough part for the mayor,” said Eyewitness Political Analyst Clancy DuBos. “He's going to have to convince the legislature and the voters that the budget has been scrubbed as much as it can be and that any additional cuts are going to be very painful, as painful as the tax perhaps.”
New Orleans police and fire unions have very different views on the controversial proposed tax hikes.
“I'm very optimistic,” said Nick Felton, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, which supports the measures. “I'm hoping for good results that we can come forth and bring hard dollars back to the city of New Orleans.
“It's going to harmful to the citizens of the city and it's going to be harmful to the police officers that live in the city, because they're going to be funding this also,” said Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans.
Increasing the hotel tax by as much as 1.75 percent could hurt the tourism industry, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.
If the tax goes through, New Orleans would have the second highest hotel tax in the nation, behind New York City, she said.
“We think that could be a deterrent,” said Early.
City officials emphasize that the tax measures may not be necessary, depending on how much the Orleans Parish Prison consent decree costs. They simply want to give the city council as many options as possible when it comes to funding the consent decrees and the fire fighters pension fund.
The proposed police and fire millage passed the House 89 to zero Monday. It now being considered in the Senate.
The proposed hotel and cigarette tax have both been referred to House committees.
A spokeswoman said Jindal is still reviewing the bills.
While the governor has said publicly that he will not support any new tax, he has been open to allowing voters to decide on tax measures, said DuBos.