The Ouachita Parish Police Jury will decide next month whether to call a special election to levy a 5-mill property tax for 30 years for funding the acquisition and improvement of facilities at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
Police Jury President Scotty Robinson announced the Police Jury’s plans to discuss calling the election during a jury meeting earlier this week.
About 25 to 30 people in maroon-colored clothes — many of whom were current or past ULM employees — attended the meeting in support of the tax proposal. None of the university’s supporters, including ULM President Nick Bruno, spoke publicly at the meeting about the tax proposal.
“If you’re here from ULM, thank you,” Robinson said.
The Police Jury will revisit the matter of whether to call the election during its Jan. 22 meeting.
During an interview with The Ouachita Citizen, Bruno acknowledged it was unusual for a university to seek a tax to support its operations.
“This would be the first effort to do so in Louisiana,” Bruno said. “In Texas and other states, it’s very common for communities to support their educational institutions.”
Unlike homeowners in Texas, Louisiana homeowners benefit from “homestead exemption,” reducing the amount of property taxes they are obligated to pay based on the assessed value of their homes. In light of the exemption, property tax proposals or increases result in a greater burden on Louisiana businesses than homeowners.
Police jurors’ remarks reflected a similar concern: would ULM’s 5-mill property tax proposal unfairly burden businesses in Ouachita Parish?
“Property taxes are weighted toward businesses,” said Police Juror Walt Caldwell, when asked about the local effect of ULM’s tax proposal. “Sooner or later, we need to address the equity of that.”
Though police jurors were reluctant to state their opinions on the record, they acknowledged that concerns about the tax proposal were previously voiced.
Each of the police jurors interviewed by The Ouachita Citizen sought to distance themselves from the tax proposal, pointing out that the university asked the Police Jury to call the election, because the university has no taxing authority.
“This is not a Police Jury tax,” Robinson said. “They came to us. People are going to assume we’re in favor of it.”
If the Police Jury calls the election and voters approve the tax measure, the Police Jury would act as the university’s fiscal agent and enter into a cooperative endeavor agreement with the university.
“That’s strictly what they requested,” said Police Jury Vice President Jack Clampit.
When asked whether he would support the property tax, Clampit said, “No comment.”
Clampit further explained that he did not want to disparage Bruno or ULM by expressing concerns about the tax proposal’s effect on local businesses.
“I would hate to throw shade on Dr. Bruno’s business, but I would also hate to continue burdening our businesses,” Clampit said. “I do have some concerns.”
Police Juror Shane Smiley, who chairs the Police Jury’s finance committee, echoed Clampit’s remarks.
“We haven’t decided on anything yet, but I get the impression that nobody is objecting to placing this proposal on the ballot, but we want to emphasize that this is ULM’s millage,” Smiley said. “This is not something the Police Jury came up with.”
Smiley said police jurors asked ULM to seek feedback from the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and the West Monroe-West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce, because of the burden of a new property tax on local businesses.
“We have expressed our concerns to them and asked them to talk to the two chambers and local businesses,” Smiley said.
During interviews with this newspaper, police jurors emphasized their support for ULM and decried the lack of stable state funding for the university. Under the state Constitution, higher education and health care do not have protected sources of funding and are often the subject of cuts when the governor or state Legislature pursue budget reductions.
“I think ULM has put together a plan presenting their needs and have convinced a number of local interests that this millage would give them stable footing for the future,” Caldwell said. “The university is a major economic driver, and their absence or diminished capacity could harm the parish.”
“I personally would support it,” Caldwell added.
Clampit, Robinson and Smiley also noted the university’s role in the local and regional economy.
“It’s a huge draw for this region, economically,” Robinson said. “I always support ULM.”
“I’m a graduate of the university, and I’ll continue to support the university,” Smiley said. “The people will have to decide whether to approve it or not.”
Bruno told The Ouachita Citizen the purpose of the tax proposal would benefit ULM facilities, specifically those housing the university’s health sciences programs.
The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine is currently constructing a building at ULM and plans to begin classes for Doctor of Osteopathic physicians in 2010. By 2024, the university expects several new doctors to enter the workforce and help change the landscape of health care in the region.
“With the new medical school coming in, we are facing challenges in providing facilities for the influx of students,” Bruno said. “This could also help us recruit and retain faculty for the medical school as well as provide scholarships.”