Mayor-President Kip Holden dismissed the notion that the city-parish is in a crime emergency, but stressed the dangers of more than 100 aging bridges parishwide at a mayoral debate Friday that focused on infrastructure and development.
The four candidates — Holden, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker, attorney Steve Myers and businessman Gordon Mese — answered questions from the American Institute of Architects Baton Rouge chapter about topics including economic development, land use, roads and bridges.
Asked how he would approach economic development, Walker stressed that crime discourages businesses from moving to Baton Rouge, noting that murders have increased 35 percent since Holden took office in 2005.
But Holden compared Walker to Chicken Little.
“‘The sky is falling, there’s crime everywhere,’ It’s like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” Holden said. “Well, crime is not out of control, but we’re having problems just like every other city in the United States.”
Holden also criticized Walker, who has served as a councilman for 12 years, for only making an issue of crime now that he’s seeking office.
When candidates were asked about how to address the parish’s poorly rated bridges, Holden blamed the Metro Council for not allowing voters to vote on the bond issue which would have addressed infrastructure issues like bridge repairs, traffic signalization and drainage problems.
The Metro Council last year voted against sending Holden’s $748 million bond issue to voters. Voters rejected his first two iterations of the bond issue in 2008 and 2009.
Holden told the audience that from 100 to 200 of the city-parish’s bridges are in danger of collapsing.
“God forbid a busload of children is riding on a bridge that we already know is deficient,” Holden said. “And yet every effort we take to move forward and address these problems has a roadblock.”
Holden said some surplus money in the 2013 budget will be dedicated to addressing the city-parish’s infrastructure problems.
Myers called Holden’s bridge rhetoric a “scare tactic.”
“People aren’t stupid, at least they’re not that stupid,” Myers said. “They know that if a bridge was really that unsafe, you wouldn’t let them drive over it.”
He suggested hiring a public relations person who could educate the public, “with a softer sell,” about the need for the tax.
“It’s someone who can tell them it’s going to be affordable, and it’s going to take care of us for the next 15 to 20 years, but we just can’t wait until the bridges fall apart,” Myers said.
Walker said he’d consider asking voters to extend the Green Light Plan’s half-cent sales tax to address the city-parish’s bridge problems.
Mese said public-private partnerships can be used to improve infrastructure, citing the example of when the College Drive Wal-Mart was developed.
Mese said initially, the city-parish was going to fund $500,000 of road improvements in front of the megastore. He said after he and other residents fought the city-parish, Wal-Mart ultimately funded the road improvements.
“Wal-Mart ended up investing in the community,” Mese asserted after the debate.
Mese, whose single-item platform includes reforming the parish’s Unified Development Code, said a proper UDC code could have prevented the fight over Wal-Mart’s roadwork.
“I shouldn’t have to do that as a guy selling flowers on Government Street,” said Mese, who owns a plant nursery. “My UDC should do that. My planning office should do that.”
Myers also took aim at the UDC, calling it a worse document than “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler’s manifesto.
Myers, a property manager, said the UDC is “intrusive” and violates private property rights, citing the example of an ordinance that prevents three or more unrelated people from living together.
Myers, however, said he is a fan of FutureBR, which was adopted last year.
The much-lamented Unified Development Code will be aligned with the FutureBR land use policy.
“It’s amazing, but it’s a statement of policy,” Myers said, suggesting that it is vulnerable to exemptions and waivers. “It’s not a regulatory document.”
Holden said the FutureBR plan was conceived with resident input.
“This is not a government down to the people, it’s the people telling government exactly what they wanted to see,” Holden said.
He said FutureBR calls for redevelopment of the Midcity as one of its earliest focuses.
“We’re going to change the faç ade, do some streetscaping, and go out and make it a lot more attractive for business and homeowners,” Holden said.
He also said FutureBR included plans for Smiley Heights, a 200-acre development north of Florida Boulevard that will include a charter school and affordable housing.
The four candidates will face off in the Nov. 6 primary.
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