Council votes to return $32 “fee”Sep 23rd, 2013 | By Candace Griffin | Category: Top Story
After much scrutiny, the Parish Council passed a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting, directing the Administration to refund the $32 fee that was tacked onto property owners’ water bills in September and October of 2012.
By mid-2012, St. Bernard Government knew the projected sales tax revenues that the budget was based on was far short than expected; a shortfall in the millions was expected. Months of layoffs and budget cuts were not enough to balance the revenue and expenditures. The only department unaffected was the Fire Department. With community protests of fire fighter layoffs and station closures, the parish decided to implement a the “Fire Protection Fee” of $32 added to every parish water bill.
But such a blanket charge was debated and many called a tax. Taxes can only be raised after the vote of the people, not a council vote, most notably—Peter Rupp, who sued the Parish for that exact reason.
Rupp is arguing that the $32 is a tax, and unlike a fee that can be in acted without the approval of voters, it legally should have been put on a public ballot. Many have sited that the St. Bernard Home Rule Charter states that any new tax, which this may very well be, must be put up for vote before it is enforced.
Now the parish is trying to return that “fee” by crediting water bills.
After receiving notice that the Parish had an adequate amount of money to pay back the much opposed fee, Councilmember said they felt it would be in the best interest of the people to return what was taken from them.
“We’ve been trying to get this done, but we were waiting for the audit report to come out before we took any action,” said Councilman at Large East, Guy McInnis. “It showed that we have enough money to refund the fee. We will be returning around $900,000 total.”
“The Council pushed hard to ensure that this could financially occur,” said Council Chairman George Cavignac. “And we’re just happy that we get to return the residents’ money.”
As of now, Rupp and his attorney plan on following through with their case against the Parish and believe that a conclusion will be imminent.
“I applaud the Council for trying to rectify the situation,” said Rupp. “But this case isn’t just about giving the people their money back, this case is based on the fact that they made an illegal move. Even if this goes through, I don’t think we’ll be dropping the case— we want a judge to say once and for all whether this was legal or not.”
According to Rupp’s attorney, Henry Klein, the resolution that was passed 5-0 with Councilman Nathan Gorbaty of District B and Councilman Richie Lewis of District C absent from the meeting, presents some new concerns:
“The bases for the resolution are exceedingly suspect—the reasons set forth are inaccurate and constitute an effort to disguise the prior illegal actions taken by the Council. The resolution will not actually be giving people money back; it will be giving them a credit on their water bills. How will people who have left the Parish get their money back? Will they be taken into consideration? Will the Parish take into account any other damages that may have been caused by this illegal ‘taking’? It’s a tangled web that the Parish has weaved for themselves.”
Klein said he will be filing amended pleadings by September 26 to bring the case up to date, and thinks that this litigation may have just gotten a little more complicated.
“It may not be as easy as just giving the money back,” said Klein. “They’re are still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”