Support appears to be lacking for Baton Rouge police pay raise tax proposal

Monday, 04 December 2017, 06:20:49 AM. A proposal to put a new tax on the ballot to raise the pay of Baton Rouge police officers appears to be losing support.

 A proposal to put a new tax on the ballot to raise the pay of Baton Rouge police officers appears to be losing support.

Several Metro Council members who withheld judgment when Councilman Matt Watson floated the tax proposal last month say they oppose it now that they’ve had time to review it. Meanwhile, some who had expressed support for the idea are voicing reservations after hearing from their constituents.

Councilman LaMont Cole was among those who supported the proposal when it was first announced. But he says he’s since changed his mind after giving it more consideration.

Cole ticked off the reasons: The mayor-president has yet to appoint a permanent chief; rank and file officers are frustrated by the advancement system based on seniority; the union contract will soon be up for debate; and the community still needs to have a conversation about the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, still under investigation by the state Attorney General nearly a year and a half later.

"I just think there are a couple things we've got to talk about. ... It just seems like now is not a great time (for the tax,)" Cole said.

Watson proposed a new 8-mill property tax to increase officers' pay, including a 24 percent raise for fresh recruits. Only city residents would vote on and pay the millage if it makes the ballot and passes. The Metro Council is set to discuss putting the matter on the April 28 ballot during their Dec. 13 meeting.

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Many council members were supportive of the idea when it was announced. They said they have other concerns — health, economic development, infrastructure — but that public safety was something they felt the public might rally behind and support.

Councilwoman Chauna Banks was among those who reserved judgment when the proposal was first announced. She said she’s since had time to study it and don’t support putting a tax on the ballot for police pay raises. She said giving police more money alone won't solve the city's public safety problems.

Although Banks unsuccessfully sought to petition then mayor-president Kip Holden last year to find money for police pay raises, she said she doesn't support Watson’s proposal for a new tax.

The tax is meant to make the police department a more attractive employer, Banks remarked. Why not consider whether past scandals have tarnished the law enforcement agency’s reputation in the eyes of job applicants, she asked.

Banks said no specific incidents immediately came to mind, just that the public may have a general distrust of the department.

Although Banks, Cole and other Democrats are one part of the equation of getting a tax proposal on the ballot, Watson is looking past them to his Republican colleagues for support. The Republican members hold a 7-5 council majority and could put the item on the ballot with a straight party vote.

The tax would only be voted on by city residents and paid for by city property owners, but council members elsewhere in the parish point out that their constituents own businesses and rental units in the city limits and deserve to be heard.

But getting all seven Republican council members to vote to put the tax on the ballot could prove challenging.

Scott Wilson, who serves a leadership role on the council as mayor pro tem, isn't lending his support for putting the tax proposal on the ballot. The Republican council member said he wants to give police a raise but can't vote for another new dedicated tax at this time.

Barbara Freiberg said she's still a supporter but wishes any new tax would take a broader approach to public safety by including the jail, social work, blight and other "root issues."

Buddy Amoroso gave his provisional support but said he still needs to ensure that the city-parish can afford to pay the higher retirement benefits that will result from greater salaries.

Still, he said, his constituents aren't happy.

"Fiscally, if we can afford it, I'll send it to the people and let the people decide. ... Most of the feedback I've received has been negative."

Watson defended his proposal, saying it will attract more qualified candidates to the city police department. That could, in turn, allow the department to raise standards, hire a more diverse and college-educated force, and more rigorously screen potential officers' personalities to determine if they're the right fit for the department.

Watson said a vote against his proposal would point to deep cracks in the city-parish government and its relationship with the populace. If residents are telling their representatives that they can't even shoulder a public safety tax — which he considers a life and death issue — it means the city parish will have to look at making some fundamental changes to the way it collects and spends money, Watson said.

Wilson agreed, at least in broad terms.

"We've got to get our own house in order,” Wilson said. “We have got to look at our revenue across the board and make some hard decisions."

Wilson said that includes possibly reducing millages to agencies like the parish’s library system to give people breathing room to support matters like public safety and infrastructure. Residents are getting fed up with taxes and losing faith in the Metro Council and mayor-president's office, and the Council on Aging tax was the last straw, Wilson said.

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Watson also has raised the issue of dedicated taxes for various public agencies. In a recent Metro Council meeting he remarked that the city-parish should determine how various tax-collecting agencies would be affected if their collections were cut. While voters approve taxes, the Metro Council must empower the sheriff to collect the millages each year. After the Council on Aging tax passed, there was some discussion of whether the Metro Council should impose a lower millage, though they ultimately voted to collect the full amount as voted.

Councilman Dwight Hudson was non-committal on the proposed police tax but had his own concerns. In addition to a general aversion to dedicated taxes, he wondered if the new millage would really serve to boost police pay. The agency is currently financed mainly through the city-parish general fund.

The mayor-president's office, which drafts the annual budget, could propose lowering the department's allocation from the general fund should the tax pass, Hudson said. That's happened to other agencies once they passed a dedicated tax, such as the Council on Aging, he pointed out.

Hudson and Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said the tax proposal should have been worked out ahead of time with Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

Collins-Lewis said she and the mayor's office hadn't even seen the proposal when Watson sent out a news release about it. She too wants a police pay raise but said the conversation is premature since the new police chief should be involved in discussions about improving the department.

The Baton Rouge Police Union has remained silent on the proposed tax. Leadership has not returned messages seeking comment in the past week.

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