City leaders cope with boom and bust in Baker

The 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster produced an economic boom for Baker as thousands of south Louisiana residents fled north to escape the storm’s catastrophic flooding.

At one point, Baker Mayor Harold Rideau said, there wasn’t a house or apartment available to buy or rent anywhere in the city. The people flooding in spent money, which meant more sales tax revenue and healthy budget surpluses for the city.

But what Rideau describes as the three “golden years” following Katrina are long gone and, with them, most of the budget surplus. That’s left city leaders with the difficult task of cutting expenses and scrambling for resources.

Baker at one point had racked up a general fund surplus of $9 million, but that’s now down to $900,000, Rideau said. The reserve fund had to be tapped in recent years because the city was spending about $1 million more than it was taking in, he said.

The economic landscape in Baker looks much different in 2013 than it did during the boom time in the first few years after Katrina when displaced victims scrambled for housing wherever they could find it.

“Everything was filled up. Nothing was available,” Rideau said recently while sitting in his office at City Hall.

In addition to all the people buying and renting homes in Baker, the federal government set up a mobile home park in Baker to temporarily house New Orleans and other south Louisiana-area residents who had no place to go following the storm.

There were approximately 600 Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in Baker’s Renaissance Village, providing close to 9,000 new residents to the city.

The picture is much different now, Rideau said, noting that there hasn’t been a new subdivision built in Baker for the past several years.

The financial struggle has been difficult for Baker as it copes with flat sales taxes, a deep recession and a costly annual hike in the cost of police and fire department retirements and benefits.

“About 70 percent of the city’s budget is salaries and benefits,” Rideau said.

In 2001, the city of Baker had to contribute 7 percent of a police officer’s annual salary to retirement, Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps said. That figure has jumped to 31 percent in 2013.

Rideau has spent a good portion of 2013 preaching to department heads to scale back expenses to avoid a municipal financial disaster. That preaching has occasionally led to feather ruffling between Rideau and Knaps.

“Look, we all have to cut. We have reduced our communication officers from eight to six. That’s a savings of $80,000 a year right there,” Knaps said.

Knaps also said the Police Department, which employs 16 uniformed patrol officers, is short one patrol officer. Despite that, Knaps vowed that there will be no reduction in services to Baker residents.

Still, the future of Baker will have to be lean.

“I pray for Baker. I really do. I’ve been active here for 53 years, but we’ve had some tough breaks,” said Monteal Carson-Margolis, director of the Baker Chamber of Commerce.

Rideau and Carson-Margolis said the problem is young professionals are not moving to Baker to spend money. A large portion of the city’s population is either older, a group that sometimes includes those who live on fixed incomes, or the working poor.

According to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data, the median income of Baker is $39,603.

In the neighboring East Baton Rouge Parish cities of Central and Zachary, the median incomes are considerably higher — $64,390 in Central and $65,227 in Zachary.

When asked why young professionals and businesses are not moving to Baker, both Rideau and Carson-Margolis blame the school system.

The Baker School System was created in 2003 after years of complaints from Baker residents that too many Baker students were being bussed to schools outside the city to help desegregate the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Academically, the Baker School System has struggled and floundered.

When the most recent state assessment grades for schools were issued in October, Baker Heights and Bakerfield elementary schools were both rated F schools, while Baker Middle School improved from an F to a D. Park Ridge Academic Magnet jumped from a D to a B grade, according to the state results.

Baker schools Superintendent Ulysses Joseph did not return two calls to his cellphone seeking comment. However, District 5 Baker School Board member Doris Alexander said she agrees with Rideau and Carson-Margolis about the school system’s failings.

“When the schools are good, people come. And that’s a problem here,” Alexander said.

Alexander said she favors giving parents a choice of schools and was excited that two new charter schools have been approved to open in the city in 2014.

“Everybody wants the best for their children, and if we can’t provide that, there should be choices,” Alexander said.

In the meantime, Rideau, Carson-Margolis and other city leaders keep fighting for every new business they can get to come to Baker.

A new shopping center on La. 19 is slated to open during the first half of 2014, a group of stores that will include a Fred’s.

“That’s light at the end of the tunnel. Anytime you have bricks and mortar going forward, you are headed in a better direction and hopefully others will follow,” Knaps said.

Rideau and Carson-Margolis said they hope a business will occupy the old Baker Wal-Mart site at the corner of Groom and Plank roads. The city is in talks with Walgreens to place a store at that location.

Rideau said if the school system is problematic for the city, recent workforce development training is something the city has invested in and could attract future businesses.

When asked if Baker could end up bankrupt because of its financial problems, Rideau said no.

“We will not go broke. The budget will be balanced. I promise you that,” Rideau said.