When East Baton Rouge Parish voters go to the polls to elect the next U.S. president, they’ll also be asked to weigh in on funding for the parish’s recreation and parks commission.
During their Thursday evening meeting, East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission members decided to put a millage renewal on the Nov. 8 ballot and got an update in the death of a tiger at the zoo.
The property tax up for vote is for 3.96 mills and raises about $15 million annually to pay for building repair, employee salaries, mowing the grass and generally “keeping the lights on,” said BREC Chairman Lloyd Benson. Without the funding, the park system could have to cut operating hours, spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet said.
The decision to put the renewal on the ballot passed with little discussion, though BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight emphasized that the tax election is a renewal of an existing tax and not connected to the proposed rebuild of the BREC-run zoo — a project that could cost more than $100 million and has included discussions about a possible move from its location in north Baton Rouge.
Last month, a consulting group advised BREC to move the zoo to one of two locations in the south part of the parish, an idea one councilwoman called “terrible” and which the NAACP has promised to fight. BREC has not decided whether to move the zoo, and Benson said the agency will need to convey to voters that the millage is not connected to that debate.
BREC’s total property tax of 14.463 mills is one of the highest in the city-parish. Residents with $200,000 homes that take homestead exemptions pay $180.79 a year in BREC taxes.
The library system also collects taxes parishwide, but unlike BREC, it must go through the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council before putting a tax on the ballot. Library board members clashed with Metro Council members last year when the library tried to renew its property tax. Some council members complained that the library, as well as other agencies with dedicated property taxes, should be willing to shave them so taxpayers would not feel as overburdened when asked to approve new taxes.
The library system’s dedicated property tax had shrunk from 11.1 mills to 10.78 mills over its taxing period because property values increased during reassessments. But when it came time for the election, the Library Board opted to ask for its full 11.1-mill tax, which voters later approved.
When property values increase, public agencies have the option of “rolling back” their taxes to keep taxpayers from paying more. That’s what the library system did until its tax election.
But agencies can also “roll forward” taxes to collect more money without the approval of voters. BREC rolled its tax forward last spring, only needing the approval of the commission to do so.
“If we don’t roll forward, when we put it on the ballot, it would look like an increase when it’s the original (tax),” Michelet said at the time.
When the BREC board voted to roll forward its tax last spring, residents with $250,000 homes with homestead exemption went from paying $248.82 a year in BREC taxes to $253.10 a year.
In other business, zoo Assistant Director Sam Winslow on Thursday reported to the commission that Hadiah, the 2-year-old Malayan tiger that died suddenly earlier this year may have suffered gastric torsion.
It’s a condition similar to bloat in dogs and causes a portion of the gastrointestinal tract to twist. It appears to be genetic in dogs, but there isn’t enough information to confirm whether that’s the case in tigers as well, he said.
To perform corrective surgery on a tiger, veterinarians would have to anesthetize the animal, which takes 30 minutes, enough time for the torsion to kill, Winslow said. However, he remarked that the final necropsy will not be complete for a few more weeks.
The zoo has performed 18 necropsies so far in 2016, including eight on mammals, Winslow said.
The zoo asked for an audit by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and was placed under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture following a recent string of high-profile deaths, which included the tiger, a newborn golden lion tamarin and two giraffes, one of whom was knocked down by another giraffe in a barn stall. The other deceased mammals this year include an elderly cheetah, a serval with cancer, a sheep with an inoperable bladder stone and an antelope, which broke its leg and was euthanized, Winslow said.
Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report. Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.