Surely you’ve seen the signs by now. “Fix My Streets! I Pay My Taxes,” they read. It’s a shame it is an argument that has to be made, but it is one that is easily and often made. You see, ’round here, it’s generally accepted as a “universal truth” that the Lake Area of New Orleans has the worst streets, perhaps even in the entire Gulf South. There’s no dispute the streets need fixing. The part of the argument that needs exploring is the “I Pay My Taxes” part. Does that part of the argument hold as much water as the streets that need fixing? Let’s explore that.
I wouldn’t be so far off to claim that the average Lake Area citizen is unsatisfied with the return of his tax “investment”. In casual conversation, you’ll often hear “I pay enough taxes in New Orleans”. In the least, you certainly have never heard “I just don’t think we paid enough in taxes this year.” To be fair, we have an about-average tax burden (27th on the list of biggest cities in each of the 50 states ordered by percentage burden). That being said, while we tax ourselves about as much as everyone else (statistically speaking), one has to wonder why we don’t see more being done, especially when looking at the quality of our streets. Where is all the money going? It has to be corruption, right? Sure, we joke about New Orleans’s predilection for public corruption and misappropriation and so on. But, is it that our tax dollars simply don’t make their way to their intended purpose? Or, is it something else?
If you were to ask the average citizen to list what they thought the top expenditures of their property taxes were, the list would go something like (in no particular order): a) public schools, b) public safety (police and fire) and c) road/street maintenance. Even Google agrees. Google is not much of an authoritative source, though, so let’s find another source of priorities. Perhaps if we ask the New Orleans Tax Assessor how your tax dollars are spent, we’d get a clearer picture of the priorities. Fortunately, that question is asked, and answered in their FAQ:
One might be inclined to think a vast majority of property tax revenue would be spent on streets, or at least a good portion of it, seeing as though it is the first in a list of examples of how property tax money is spent. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that just 1.9 out of 149 mills are allocated for Department of Public Works (DPW, the department primarily in charge of maintaining streets.) Just 1.5% of the property tax revenue is appropriated for streets.
Put another way, if you paid $2000 in property taxes, just about $30 of that will be spent on street maintenance, if that (one would have to assume that the Department Of Public Works spends all their budget on efficient street maintenance).
So, it’s not that the property tax money is somehow funneled into a black hole, someone’s pockets, or even that there isn’t enough money to address this problem; it’s that street maintenance are simply not a priority, and this is reflected in our current millage.
Property taxes, though, are only a single source of income for the City. One would think that if streets were a bigger priority, they’d have found other sources of revenue to direct to the street problem. Point in case, sales tax revenue is a bigger contributor to the general fund bottom line than property taxes, yet there is no substantial improvement in DPW’s appropriation of general fund revenues. This proof of this can be found in the Adopted City Budget (page 60.):
Of the ~$850m dollars the city has to spend, only $16.9m are actually allocated to the Department of Public Works. This is less than 2% (1.999% to be exact-ish, almost to the point of adding insult to injury). Here are a list of big budget items that outrank the amount allocated to the department in charge of streets:
- ($143m) – (Mayoral Budget) Mitch Landrieu’s Grants, Funds, Special Projects (Homeland Security, Community Development)
- ($135m) – Police
- ($100m) – Intergovernmental Affairs / Transfer of Non-General (Not For Streets)
- ($86m) – Fire
- ($53m) – Office Of Community Development
- ($45m) – Chief Administrative Office
- ($43m) – Finance
- ($39m) – Sanitation
- ($38m) – Miscellaneous
- ($31m) – Health
- ($24m) – Sheriff
- ($17m) – City Council
- ($16.9m) – Department of Public Works
When painting with broad brush strokes, this picture portrays Streets and being 13th on the City’s list of priorities. A far cry from the typical citizens understanding of what our public money is intended for.
At the end of the day, yes, we pay our taxes. The issue is either our citizens or the City has got the wrong priorities. Street’s can’t be 13th on the list. Perhaps the sign should read “Fix My Streets! Prioritize This!”.
On second thought, seeing the current momentum this campaign has had, perhaps “I Pay My Taxes” is a better battle cry.