Editor’s note: One in a series on mayoral race issues.
All four candidates for mayor-president agree East Baton Rouge Parish is decades behind in improving drainage canals, building bridges and taking care of other vital infrastructure needs.
But they differ in how they would go about solving the problems.
Three of the candidates — Mayor-President Kip Holden, businessman Gordon Mese and attorney Steve Myers — agree that proposing a new tax-funded bond issue is likely the best way to tackle the immediate infrastructure problems, which include replacing more than 100 dilapidated bridges and clearing miles of clogged canals that have caused flooding.
But Metro Councilman Mike Walker maintains many of the infrastructure problems can be solved without raising taxes.
Holden, a Democrat seeking his third term as mayor-president, has made rebuilding the city-parish’s infrastructure a primary focus of his eight years in office.
The Green Light Plan to expand and build roads was an initiative of his administration.
The administration also has been managing and overseeing a $1.4 billion project to overhaul the parish’s crumbling sewer system, launched prior to his taking office.
The Green Light Plan is financed with a half-cent sales tax; the sewer program is funded with a combination half-cent sales tax and sewer user fee.
Holden also spearheaded the North Boulevard Town Square downtown and has attempted unsuccessfully to kick-start hundreds of millions of dollars of widespread infrastructure and economic development projects through the three tax-and-bond issues he’s proposed since 2008.
Holden said he wants people to think beyond the present and envision what Baton Rouge’s future should look like.
“I don’t mind being called the infrastructure mayor,” Holden said. “By not thinking and moving forward, we find ourselves in the situation where we have to pay much more money later to play catch up.”
In 2008 and 2009, voters rejected the $989 million and $901 million tax-and-bond issues proposed by Holden.
The $225 million Alive riverfront development component of the two proposals drew criticism and was blamed by many as a key factor in the defeats.
Holden offered a pared-down version in 2011, without the Alive attraction, and divided the multifaceted tax package into three different segments — crime, infrastructure and economic development.
But the Metro Council voted against sending the proposal to voters.
Bridges and canals
Now, on the campaign trail, Holden reminds voters that the parish cannot escape its infrastructure problems — bridges, in particular, which he says pose dangers to drivers.
The parish has about 300 bridges — 200 of which have wooden substructures prone to deterioration that are nearing the end of their life spans, Deputy Public Works Director Bryan Harmon said.
Holden’s most recent bond issue dedicated $80 million to replacing the parish’s 75 weakest bridges during the next 10 years.
“I hope and pray that I’m not in office if one of those bridges collapses and a school bus full of kids are on that bus and end up with massive injuries,” Holden said. “We will become the star witness for trial lawyers throughout Baton Rouge because we have told the story over and over again. We have a very dangerous situation in Baton Rouge that has to be taken care of before somebody dies.”
Holden said the city-parish’s tremendous infrastructure needs cannot be addressed adequately within the confines of the current budget but added that he’s not sure whether he’ll pursue a fourth bond issue. Instead, he said, he’ll make it a priority to educate residents about the dangers posed by a crumbling infrastructure and will push for another bond issue if there’s a “groundswell” of support for it.
“I’m not going to just beat my head up against the wall if I don’t see the support coming from the people,” he said.
Holden said he has been hearing some feedback from residents in response to bridges being closed, “but it has not been enough of a groundswell where people are knocking and banging at the door, saying ‘We’ve got to get this done.’”
Only 38 bridges were included in Holden’s 2008 proposal, and bridges were left out entirely from the 2009 proposal.
It’s a detail not lost on Walker, a Republican, who said he’s skeptical of Holden’s emergency rhetoric.
“If it’s such an emergency and has been for such a long time, then why didn’t he include it in the first bond issue?” Walker asked. “The only time Kip has an emergency is when he wants to raise taxes.”
William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Holden, has said the bridges were left out of the second tax-and-bond proposal in error because some staff members believed state funds had been secured to replace bridges.
Walker said bridge repairs could be funded by asking voters to extend the Green Light Plan, a parish road program funded by a half-cent sales tax, and include bridge projects.
“Give us several more years on that program, and you haven’t added an additional tax,” Walker said. “People are paying for a tax they like, that they know gets results.”
Holden said extending the Green Light Plan tax would not have a significant impact on bridge replacement because the program has exhausted its bonding capacity.
“We currently have over $100 million worth of bridge needs while extension of the Green Light tax would not significantly increase our immediate bonding capacity,” Holden said.
Without issuing more bonds for the program, the bridges would be funded on a very slow, “pay-as-you-go” basis, Holden’s administration has said.
Holden’s most recent tax proposal also called for almost $200 million dedicated to 40 miles of drainage improvement, which include clearing and widening canals to prevent flooding.
Walker said drainage issues can simply be solved by putting DPW employees to work.
“There’s a way to do it without a bond issue,” Walker said. “Just move DPW crews out there and get it done.”
Holden said Walker’s plan to clean drainage canals suggests that he is “simply not understanding the magnitude and scope of the problems with the drainage or how the budget of DPW is constructed.”
“Basically, we have to make up for fifty plus years of needs that have built up since the last bond issue in the early 1960s,” Holden said. “DPW lacks the manpower and the equipment to do this work — clearing and snagging, concrete lining of channels to stabilize the slopes, and in some cases completely reshaping the channel.”
Still, Walker insists the parish is making excuses, while not addressing the problem in a common sense way.
“All this time that Zachary and Baker have been asking for their bayous to be cleaned, we could have cleaned them three or four times, but we refuse to put DPW crews out there until we have a bond issue for drainage,” he said.
Independent candidate Mese said rewriting the city-parish’s guidelines for development and land use — the Unified Development Code — is the long-term answer for solving many of the city-parish’s infrastructure problems.
Changing the UDC, Mese said, will eventually end what he describes as “double taxes” like the sewer user fee, the Green Light Plan tax and the Capital Area Transit System tax. Those taxes were enacted to fix infrastructure problems caused by a bad code, he argues.
For example, Mese said, there would be no need for a Green Light Plan if the city-parish had a development code in place that forced developers to plan for more connectivity among roads before starting their projects.
“It’s broken and it is the foundation that the city and the parish is built on,” he said. “If you build on a broken foundation, it doesn’t work.”
But Mese cautioned that rewriting the UDC could take eight years and the fruit of the changes wouldn’t be seen for even longer. In the meantime, Mese said, a new tax to fund a bond issue is the best way to address the mounting infrastructure needs.
Mese said if Holden had “listened to the people” and taken the Alive project out of the 2009 proposal, “it probably would have passed, we’d be moving forward and he wouldn’t have any competition in this race.”
Holden noted that the UDC has been recognized with numerous “national, state and local awards. ”
The UDC is also being aligned now with FutureBR, a land use and development policy adopted last year that Holden said will “make it one of the most forward-thinking codes of its type in the nation.”
Holden said he thinks people are more concerned with waivers to the UDC than the actual code, noting that many waivers are granted by the Metro Council.
“I share the concern of Mr. Myers and Mr. Mese, and support adhering to the codes and ordinances as they are written,” Holden said.
Mese said progressive cities like Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and Nashville, Tenn., all have re-evaluated their UDCs in recent years. He suggested Baton Rouge could learn from their successes and mistakes to come up with a successful model for the nation.
Myers, who like Mese is running as a no-party candidate, said he agrees a tax-and-bond issue may be necessary for big-ticket items like bridge repairs. But he said he disagrees with Holden’s “scare tactics.”
Myers said he would limit any such tax proposals to the most important infrastructure projects and not include as many projects as Holden did with his package, which included money for a River Center expansion, a downtown parking garage and renovations to City Hall.
Myers said he’d educate voters about the cost benefits of paying for the bridges now versus waiting to pay later.
“Voters are a little more astute than politicians give them credit for,” Myers said.
Myers also said some traffic congestion can be solved by adding turning arrows at lights and ensuring that when traffic lights go out, the intersections are manned with people to direct traffic.
“We don’t need a highly decorated officer directing traffic, but we can have people out there to do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of small detail type things that we can do while we’re out there convincing people we need another bond to do long-term projects.”
Myers also said the city-parish can address drainage and flooding problems in the long term by changing building codes to force developers in flood-prone areas to build elevated homes.
“You don’t lift every house now, but you say from this point on we build up,” he said. “In the long term it will be cheaper if we spend a little more money on the way as we build … and flood insurance would be cheaper.”
Myers said infrastructure should be a higher priority than economic development for a government, adding that he would focus a lot of his attention on sewer problems.
He said the city-parish should be doing more to help the residents of University Place who live adjacent to the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant and are plagued with odors and sewer flies.
The residents have spent almost two decades embroiled in litigation with the city-parish, fighting for compensation after the city-parish expanded the plant more than 40 years ago.
While the courts ultimately sided with the city-parish, the city-parish is considering a buyout that would relocate the residents and build a buffer around the sewer plant.
“We have a moral obligation to not let some people live in raw sewage,” Myers said. “If we’re going to be ‘One Baton Rouge,’ there have to be some compromises and give and take, and some people will have to let their tax money be used for infrastructure so others can reach a minimal standard of living.”