BY Rebekah Allen
Advocate staff writer
October 27, 2012
Three of the four candidates running for East Baton Rouge Parish mayor-president talked about dedicated taxes, blighted properties and the socioeconomic divide within the parish at a forum Thursday hosted by the Sherwood Forest Citizens Association.
With less than two weeks until the Nov. 6 primary, Councilman Mike Walker, attorney Steve Myers and businessman Gordon Mese faced off in one of the more light-hearted mayoral forums.
Mayor-President Kip Holden had committed to attending the forum but canceled Wednesday morning because he said he had made a commitment to attend another event at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
“While we had originally hoped he could attend both events Thursday night, we regret that it will be logistically impossible to attend the forum and still meet his prior commitment,” Rannah Gray, Holden’s campaign adviser, wrote in an email to the civic association.
One resident at Thursday’s forum asked the candidates to explain how they would be fiscally responsible with taxpayer money, criticizing the parish Library System’s plan to spend $19 million to rebuild the downtown library and the recent passage of a bus tax.
Walker, a Republican, said he sent out 11,000 robocalls before the CATS tax urging residents to vote against it.
He said voters were only given the choice of whether to support a “failed system,” but his plan would have been to put the management of the system out to bid.
He said CATS Board President Jared Loftus has sent the council a letter asking for the city-parish to continue subsidizing the bus system with its $2.9 million contribution.
“My answer real quick is N-O in capital letters,” Walker said.
Walker also told the audience that he voted against the most recent architecture contract for the downtown library.
Walker has, however, supported the downtown library in other votes.
Mese, no party, said the problem with the city-parish’s finances is that it’s “over-dedicated.”
Both the library and CATS are now funded with dedicated taxes, which means that money cannot be diverted for use for other city parish needs like roads or public safety.
He said the city-parish needed to look at “undedicating” money, which would increase its ability to address financial problems across various departments.
Myers, no party, disagreed and said he supported dedicated taxes because it guarantees that taxpayers know where there money is going.
“I don’t like the idea of making all the money discretionary because I don’t trust their discretion,” Myers said of elected officials.
Myers also said he did not support the CATS tax and thought the downtown library should have been built on the riverfront to make it more attractive to visitors.
Asked how to address blighted areas, Mese told the group to call their councilman “because he’s the one that should really be doing that for you.”
He looked at Walker, the council member who represents the Sherwood Forest area, who laughed and started fanning himself with a paper campaign fan.
Walker said he agrees that blight leads to drugs and crime, but he said cleaning up blight is the “battle we’ve all been fighting.”
He said it would take a change in the laws to effectively reduce blight.
Mese said the government should offer tax incentives to motivate both big developers and smaller property owners to redevelop blighted properties.
The candidates also were asked how to unify the parish, which is starkly divided in socioeconomic terms.
Walker said attacking crime in low income parts of the parish would help create unity.
Mese said the parish’s broken unified development code was to blame for helping to divide the parish, and could be fixed in the long term by revamping the code. The UDC is the parish’s blueprint that guides land use and development.
He said the UDC allowed the city-parish to grow bigger than what it could afford and sustain.
“We are abandoning areas to support new areas that we can’t support and we don’t need,” he said. “We’ve created our own ghettos.”
Myers said if the government limits itself to its core missions of infrastructure and public safety, and defunded economic and social programs, it could provide an equal level of infrastructure and protection for everyone in the parish rather than having to prioritize certain areas.