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Stormwater fees expected to go before voters in flood-prone New Orleans

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2024-02-08 05:30:58

Stormwater fees expected to go before voters in flood-prone New Orleans

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
February 8, 2024

NEW ORLEANS — Just days after an intense rainstorm caused yet another round of flooding, a push is under way to collect stormwater fees from nearly every property owner in the city — including those with exemptions who haven't been required to pay drainage system taxes.

A citywide ballot proposal is expected to go before voters in November that will ask their approval of a stormwater fee based on a property's size and how much burden it places on the city's drainage infrastructure. Revenue from the fee would go toward drainage maintenance work and green infrastructure projects that lessen stormwater impacts.  

For single-family homeowners, the fee would be phased in as current property tax millages devoted to drainage expire. Commercial properties would be assessed the fee as soon as it takes effect – a date that has not yet been determined. Larger sites — such as the Superdome, the Morial Convention Center and tax-exempt college and medical campuses — could be billed tens of thousands of dollars per month to account for their drainage needs.

Why should you care about New Orleans drinking water?

Details on the proposal were shared Wednesday during a presentation at Lakefront Airport from The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans. Starting in 2022, the nonprofit organization has conducted community surveys and workshops, canvassed city neighborhoods door to door and studied best practices in other cities as part of its Water Justice New Orleans initiative. Data was collected from more than 10,000 people locally, and nearly 3,300 residents were interviewed in person for feedback on city drainage issues.

Jessica Dandridge, the Water Collaborative's executive director, stressed that urgency is critical, as the city continues to lose residents, resulting in fewer property owners and a shrinking tax base. After a decade-long post-Hurricane Katrina resurgence, according to Census figures, New Orleans' population has decreased every year since 2016. The city counted 369,749 residents in 2022, still well below the 455,000 mark before Katrina in 2005.  

“It has to be done, and we don't have time to wait,” Dandridge said in her call to enact a stormwater fee as soon as possible.

For purposes of its presentation, the Water Collaborative used Orleans Parish assessor's data to set the average single-family residential property size at 2,500 square feet. That number was used to create an equivalent residential unit or ERU. Fees for residential and commercial properties will be based on these ERUs.  

Water Justice recommends the city hire a consultant to determine the amount of impervious surface area for every property in the city, which will factor into their respective stormwater fees.

For a point of reference, collaborative staff looked at where other cities have set their ERU rates. In Baltimore, for example, monthly fees range from $4.33 for less than 820 square feet of impervious surface to $13 a month for more than 1,500 square feet.

The New Orleans proposal will likely include a similar tiered fee structure, according to Rebecca Malpass, the Water Collaborative's research and policy director. 

A major grievance of New Orleans private property owners has been seeing their property tax bills increase while sizable nonprofit corporations and tax-exempt institutions aren't billed at all. The stormwater fee proposal would apply to all property owners, although Dandrige said some organizations such as small businesses and neighborhood churches could seek exemptions. Any exemptions would be phased out after three to five years, giving property owners enough time to factor stormwater fees into their future expenses.

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Figures from the Orleans Parish assessor for 2024 show properties valued at more than $3 billion for tax purposes are constitutionally tax exempt, compared with $5.3 billion worth that are taxable. The $3 billion figure does not include more than $488 million in homestead exemptions for people over age 65 and disabled veterans. 

The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research reported that property taxes generated $600 million for New Orleans in 2019, or nearly half of its total tax revenue for the year. 

The Water Collaborative's approach does offer relief to businesses and entities with large parcels that aren't equipped to retain water on site. Large commercial property owners would be able to apply offsets against their fees under the proposal. 

For example, the Superdome could seek a credit if owners invested in water retention features on its downtown footprint or put money toward a citywide forestry project. The Convention Center would get credit for stormwater it directs into the Mississippi River.

‘Tapped Out': Investigation finds deeper issues with New Orleans drinking water

Voters will also be asked to approve another aspect of the stormwater fee system, one that involves two public agencies that frequently struggle to gain public confidence. A city charter change would place management of all drainage infrastructure under the Sewerage and Water Board. Currently, the city's Department of Public Works handles all catch basins and street-level drainage pipes that feed the Sewerage and Water Board's larger pipes, culverts and canals.   

Dandridge said a frequent complaint of survey respondents was the difficulty in filing complaints and getting follow-through from the proper department.

To ensure accountability, Dandridge said, community advisory groups would be created to evaluate how money raised from the stormwater fees are spent. The Water Collaborative recommends it be split between the Sewerage and Water Board, which would use its share for drainage upkeep, and the city's Department of Parks and Parkways, where green infrastructure projects would originate.

The stormwater fee revenue would not replace state and city money, which would still be needed for large-scale drainage system work, Malpass said.

The Water Collaborative also backs the creation of a new city Department of Resiliency and Sustainability. The latter currently exists as an office under the mayor's purview, but a full-blown department would give the New Orleans City Council more direct oversight of its finances, Dandridge said. 

She also called for a publicly accessible website to be created so property owners can track how fees are calculated at every address in the city and see how the revenue is allocated.

Severe weather this past weekend put stormwater in vehicles parked along streets and into lower-lying homes and businesses. Compounding the overwhelming rain was the latest breakdown of an aging turbine that powers city drainage pumps. Also, residents learned Monday the city has yet to touch a $10 million allocation for cleaning catch basins, the first line of defense against street flooding.     

Last year, the Louisiana Legislature granted authority to the Sewerage and Water Board, a state-created entity, to act as a stormwater utility so it can establish fees. State lawmakers also passed a law that requires voters to approve the assessment and collection of any stormwater fees.

The ballot measure will come from the New Orleans City Council. District E Councilman Oliver Thomas, who chairs the public works committee, took part in Wednesday's presentation and mentioned opportunities the city had decades ago to be at the forefront of stormwater management — only to become complacent with climate change.

Thomas also recalled when the business community successfully defeated a drainage tax renewal in the 1990s.

“We got comfortable,” Thomas said. “…Mother Nature always wins. Now we just have to come up with a way that we can win, too.”

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2024-02-22 05:00:54

Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
February 22, 2024

Companies that receive major breaks on their local property taxes to invest in large industrial projects in Louisiana will no longer have to set hiring goals to get the incentive, plus they won't need approval from local taxing authorities if the governor is in favor of their proposal.   

Gov. Jeff Landry signed an executive order Wednesday that upends the standards and approval process that's been place for the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) since 2016. The signing took place during the governor's appearance at a Louisiana Association of Business and Industry luncheon, according to the Baton Rouge Business Report

“This program is about capital investment. It is not about job creation,” Landry said.

Since 1998, Louisiana has awarded more than $20 billion in local tax breaks to industry through its Industrial Tax Exemption Program, according to an Ohio River Valley Institute analysis. 

Flow from the ITEP spigot slowed significantly in 2016 then-Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order that required local approval of industrial tax exemptions. He also reduced the tax break available from 100% of property taxes to 80% and inserted a job-creation requirement for companies. Landry's order keeps the tax reduction at the same level.

The executive order he signed Wednesday also condenses the process for companies to receive local approval on their tax exemptions. Previously, each local body that collects property taxes had to approve tax breaks independently with a separate public hearing. For example, a parish school board could approve the tax exemption, but a parish council or sheriff could reject it. The business would then receive a partial tax break.  

Landry's new arrangement calls for a single parish industrial board, which would include representatives from the taxing agencies, to consider ITEP applications. Its vote would apply to all local agencies that receive property taxes, meaning companies would get approval a total tax break or none.

The executive order also upends the sequence of approval to award industrial tax exemptions, placing ultimate power in the governor's hands. Local approval has been necessary for an ITEP request to advance for consideration to the state Board of Commerce and Industry, a 24-member panel of appointees from business groups and the governor. 

Now, under Landry's order, companies will first submit their applications to the Board of Commerce and Industry. If their request is approved, the state panel will then notify a parish industrial board that it must hold a public hearing on the application within 45 days.

However, the order says little about what weight the local recommendation has in the ITEP approval process or how it factors into the governor's decision.

“Input from the Local ITEP Committee is important for consideration of an industrial tax exemption; however, it should not unduly delay the ITEP application process,” the order reads.

In an email, the Illuminator asked Landry spokesperson Kate Kelly about the governor's ability to override a local ITEP vote.

“The governor is the final say,” Kelly said.

Together Louisiana, a coalition of church and civic groups, has been highly critical of the state's generous ITEP giveaways. In a statement Wednesday, the group questioned whether Landry's order turned the incentive program into “a gift.”

“If a corporation gets a tax exemption, not to bring in a new plant or create jobs, but just as a public subsidy for its routine capital investments — investments, that is, that would have happened anyway — the result is not economic development. It's the opposite,” the Together Louisiana statement said. 

“In that scenario, local communities don't get new economic activity, but they still lose the millions in tax revenue from their schools, roads and police,” the statement continued. “They lose jobs — the teachers, construction workers, sheriff's deputies and others who would have provided the services that went unfunded. And their property taxes start going up, to fill the holes in the tax base left by each new round of gratuitous giveaway.”

Without any job requirements, companies can now apply for tax exemptions for most any large-scale investment in Louisiana. Landry's order does specify that maintenance expenses, environmental compliance upgrades and replacement parts that are not part of an extensive restoration do not qualify for ITEP awards.

The order goes into effect for all ITEP applications moving forward, effective Feb. 21, but does not apply retroactively to applications or exemptions.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

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lailluminator.com – Piper Hutchinson – 2024-02-21 16:51:56

Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

by Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

Three Louisiana criminal justice reform advocates have asked a state court to prevent the Legislature from discussing several proposals until more public testimony is heard on the bills. 

Their petition was filed Wednesday in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge by Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Experienced, Ronald Marshall, chief policy analyst with Voice of the Experienced, and Erica Navalance, a staff attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative. Read the full petition below. 

They contend House Administration of Criminal Justice Chair Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, has irregularly limited public input over two days of hearings during a special session on crime policy. The agenda for the session features a string of bills, with Gov. Jeff Landry's support, that call for harsher consequences for criminals.   

The committee enacted a rule to limit each public commenter to three minutes and cut off public debate after proponents and opponents of a bill each testified for one hour. The three-minute rule is a common practice at the Capitol, but overall time limits are seldom used. 

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Committee members said they supported these rules to get through testimony more quickly. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the committee had a full schedule of bills that attracted a large number of public comments. The special session doesn't have to end until March 5, but leaders have suspended the rules several times in order to expedite hearings on bills rather than letting them lay over for a day between hearings. 

House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Matthew Willard of New Orleans and other Democrats have criticized Republicans for fast-tracking legislation that would almost totally reshape Louisiana's criminal justice system, giving the public limited opportunity for input. 

The court petition seeks to prevent the full House of Representatives from discussing the bill until the House Criminal Justice Committee holds another hearing to allow more public comment. The complainants say they traveled to Baton Rouge to testify, but the committee's time limits prevented them from speaking. 

House Speaker Phillip Devillier, R-Eunice, defended the committee, arguing two hours of discussion per bill is reasonable, and that the Legislature is allowed to suspend the rules to advance bills. 

The complainants want to pause debate on four bills: 

House Bill 4, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carenco, which limits post-conviction relief opportunities. House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, which expands the methods by which Louisiana executes people and shields records related to executions from public viewHouse Bill 9, by Villio, which eliminates parole in almost all circumstances House Bill 10, by Villio, which limits good time credits and credit for time served

 

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

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lailluminator.com – Jennifer Shutt – 2024-02-21 16:26:30

Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

by Jennifer Shutt, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

President Joe Biden expanded his push to eliminate student loan debt Wednesday, saying during a speech the initiative is part of a campaign promise to address the “broken” system.

“While a college degree is still a ticket to a better life, that ticket is too expensive,” Biden said. “And too many Americans are still saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for a college degree.”

Biden, who made his remarks while on a trip to California that also included fundraising for his 2024 campaign, argued that canceling student loan debt not only helps those who receive the benefit directly, but those in their communities.

“When people's student debt is relieved, they buy homes, they start businesses, they contribute, they engage in the community in ways they weren't able to before and it actually grows the economy,” Biden said.

The latest round of student debt forgiveness includes nearly 153,000 borrowers and a total of $1.2 billion in debt, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

Those receiving loan forgiveness are enrolled in the Saving on a Valuable Education or SAVE repayment plan, have been paying back their loans for at least 10 years and originally took out less than $12,000 in loans.

This week's actions bring total student loan cancellation by the Biden administration to $138 billion for nearly 3.9 million people, according to the fact sheet.

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Repayments tied to income, family size

The so-called SAVE Plan allows borrowers to set their student loan repayments based on their income and family size, not the amount of student loan debt they hold.

“The SAVE plan ensures that if borrowers are making their monthly payments, their balances cannot grow because of unpaid interest,” according to the White House's fact sheet. “And, starting in July, undergraduate loan payments will be cut in half, capping a borrower's loan payment at 5% of their discretionary income.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a call with reporters Tuesday there are about 7.5 million people enrolled in the SAVE Plan and that 4.3 million don't have a monthly payment.

“Many SAVE forgiveness recipients come from lower- and middle-income backgrounds,” Cardona said. “Many took out loans to attend community colleges. Some were at high risk for delinquency and default. That's why the actions we're announcing today do matter.”

Cardona said those eligible for this round of student debt cancellation would receive an email from Biden telling them about the move.

New FAFSA rollout criticized

Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said in a written statement the latest round of student loan forgiveness is misguided.

“The Biden Department of Education has been unable to fulfill their basic responsibilities mandated by Congress and essential to families, like implementing FAFSA,” Cassidy said, referring to the application college students fill out to access student aid, including grants, scholarships and loans.

The Biden administration's efforts to revamp the form have been marred by delays and errors. 

“Instead, they have spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing their student loan schemes to shift someone else's debt onto taxpayers that chose not to go to college or already paid off their loans,” Cassidy added. “This is unfair, manipulative and a cynical attempt to buy votes.”

Cassidy is the ranking member on the U.S. Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, often referred to as the HELP Committee.

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Supreme Court decision

Biden, speaking at the Julian Dixon Library in Culver City, California, criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for blocking his original student loan forgiveness plan. 

“Early in my term, I announced a major plan to provide millions of working families with debt relief for their college student debt,” Biden said. “But my MAGA Republican friends in the Congress, elected officials and special interests stepped in and sued us. And the Supreme Court blocked it. But that didn't stop me.”

Biden said the justices' opinion in that case led him to “pursue alternative paths” for student debt relief, which includes the announcement he made Wednesday.

Canceling some student loan debt, Biden said, is about giving people a chance.

“That's all we're doing … giving people a chance, a fighting chance to make it, because no one who is willing to work hard in America should be denied the opportunity to have that chance.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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