Kenner to seek OK to refinance sales tax bonds

Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni’s aggressive plan to remake Kenner as a “city of choice” cleared its first hurdle Thursday, but judging by the reaction from residents and politicians, it may be go through some serious changes before its final approval.

The Kenner City Council gave Yenni’s administration approval to present a plan to refinance sales tax bonds for up to $47 million in an effort to complete roughly $30 million in aesthetic improvements within the city. The State Bond Commission is slated to consider the city’s application in a few weeks, although even with that approval no projects will be finalized until later this year.

Yenni is pushing a plan to make aggressive changes to the city’s main thoroughfares that would include landscaping, streetscaping and art work. The changes are part of the mayor’s “Kenner 2030” plan, which he unveiled to much fanfare last month after meeting with his economic development committee for months. Yenni wants to refinance existing sales tax bonds that would otherwise be paid off in about five years. The city’s debt payments would remain the same, but the terms of the loan would be extended for 20 years.

“I firmly believe we must have and fund a vision for the city of Kenner,” Yenni said. “Our people deserve a sense of place.”

The Bond Commission will consider the city’s plan and make a decision on whether it can proceed, although city officials are confident they will receive that approval. City officials would then see what types of terms they can secure for interest rates and other items. However, the final decision to refinance the debt would still need to be voted on by the council.

That point was stressed by multiple council members as they approved Yenni’s request after a lengthy discussion. Councilwoman Maria Defrancesch argued that the council’s decision just allowed the city to be in the position to act if the board decides to move forward in the future. She said the council could agree with Yenni’s plan, change it or scrap it completely.

“All this is, is a dialogue; it is not a commitment,” Defrancesch said.

Councilman Kent Denapolis put the process in even simpler terms.

“Basically, you’re going out, and you’re window shopping,” he said.

But councilmen Joe Stagni and Gregory Carroll argued they needed more time to talk to residents about the plan before they could issue even a preliminary approval. Stagni said he’d like to have a public hearing with residents in his district or at least survey them to get a sense of their thoughts. Stagni claimed that despite Yenni’s news conferences and multiple news stories, many city residents don’t know what is going on. Carroll echoed the same concerns, noting that some of the initial feedback he’s received from residents hasn’t been particularly positive.

“We want to make it a transparent and open process,” Stagni said. “Ninety-five percent of the people that this affects, they don’t really know what’s going on right now.”

Yenni scoffed at Stagni’s claim that he hasn’t had enough time to review the plan or seek out residents’ feelings. The mayor said he met with Stagni more than a month ago, just like he met with every other council member and gave them the plan. He questioned why Stagni hadn’t sought out resident input in that interim.

“You knew, you been knowing, and I don’t understand it,” Yenni said.

The initial reaction to Yenni’s plan from the public has been mixed as well. Jefferson Business Council Director Tony Ligi urged the council to support Yenni’s plan wholeheartedly, as did a member of Yenni’s economic development committee, which helped create it. However, resident Connie Zimmerman made dire predictions about the impact the plan could have on Kenner’s bottom line and the future of its residents.

One common concern is the size of the debt Kenner would have to incur to make Yenni’s proposed changes a reality. Although the city’s annual debt payments would remain about $3.2 million, the time needed to pay off the debt would far outstrip the tenures of existing politicians, said Walt Bennetti, president of Citizens for a Better Kenner and a frequent Yenni critic.

Stagni said dedicating so much of the city’s debt to aesthetic projects would limit what future politicians could do to improve the city’s infrastructure. Kenner is already making $60 million in improvements to its sewer infrastructure, thanks to a variety of state loans.

“You can’t just throw it on the agenda and act as if we have to rubber stamp it and move forward,” Stagni said.

Councilwoman Michele Branigan said that now that the plan is out there, residents can review it, consider it and offer their input. Council members won’t make any decisions until they are clear on how the plan will work, she said.

“The good news is the sky is not falling,” Branigan said.