Kenner Council OKs bond refinancing for beautification

A planned overhaul and beautification of Kenner’s major thoroughfares was approved 6-1 by the Kenner City Council on Thursday, and now the city is moving forward with its plan to accrue roughly $47 million in debt.

Councilman Gregory Carroll cast the lone dissenting vote.

Mayor Michael Yenni’s plan to refinance the city’s sales tax bonds in order to pay for roughly $29 million in landscaping, streetscaping, bike trails and new walkways was passed after council members spent nearly 45 minutes justifying their decision. With the council’s approval, Yenni can now seek purchasers for the bonds, and he’s said he expects to have the money in hand by the summer.

The council’s vote ended weeks of discussion and town hall meetings about Yenni’s plan, which is part of his “Kenner 2030” plan for the city’s growth and development. After council members complained earlier this month that residents hadn’t had enough time to consider the plan, Yenni staged meetings to present the plan to public.

While the proposal has been championed by many in the business community, its critics have complained that it creates too much new debt.

Former State Rep. Tony Ligi told the council that it needed to approve Yenni’s plan because the city was “butt ugly” and needed an overhaul. Ligi said he’s worried about Kenner’s property tax base and its ability to attract new residents, particularly younger residents.

Besides Ligi’s remarks, there were no other comments from the public.

Opponents of the plan were more vocal at the Louisiana State Bond Commission, which gave the city permission to refinance the bonds earlier Thursday, over objections from residents.

Yenni’s plan is to refinance the sales tax bonds at a lower interest rate and extend the term of the debt for 15 years. The price-tag includes the remaining $14 million on the sales tax bonds from 2003 and $32.5 million for new projects, according to the figures presented to the Louisiana State Bond Commission.

Because of the lower interest rate, Kenner’s annual debt payment would remain about $3.2 million, which is the same as the current payment.

Richard Brown, a member of Citizens for a Better Kenner, complained to the commission about the city’s handling of the bonds. He said city officials ignored rules in a rush to get the plan moving.

“We believe this is premature,” he said.

Brown said the City Council resolution approving the bond issue will not be valid for another two days. He said the city submitted an application to the state Bond Commission before the council considered the issue.

“The resolution you have has no force of law,” said Walt Bennetti, president of Citizens for a Better Kenner.

Whit Kling, director of the State Bond Commission, said he could not offer an opinion on whether the city followed its rules.

Kling said state officials could approve the borrowing contingent on the city resolution becoming valid.

“Whether or not it was under the city ordinance, I can’t address,” he said.

Kent Schexnayder, the city of Kenner’s financial adviser, told the commission that the city has address issues at number of meetings. “They can raise their objections. We submitted all the information timely. The council adopted the resolution. We submitted that,” Schexnayder said.

State Treasurer John Kennedy offered Citizens for a Better Kenner and Schexnayder time to huddle about their differences, but Schexnayder rejected the offer.

“Their objections will be their objections no matter what,” he said.

Brown said he just wants the proper procedure to be followed.

“We just think they’ve rushed this,” he said.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, made a motion for the commission to approve the borrowing. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne suggested making approval contingent on the effective date of the city resolution. State officials agreed, without objection, to the suggestion.

At the council meeting later Thursday, members who supported the plan said that they believe improvements are mandatory if the city is going to improve. One of the chief complaints about the plan is that Yenni has moved too rapidly, but council members said that’s just not the case. The time for action is now, they argued.

“We all agree that we have to do something. We have to invest in our community if we want other people to invest in our community,” Councilwoman Michele Branigan said.

Councilwoman Maria Defrancesch said Kenner can’t afford to do nothing.

“Stagnation is not an option,” she said.

Councilman Kent Denapolis noted that it’s obvious that Kenner is competing with communities all over the country, and more particularly with New Orleans. He touted Kenner’s lower crime and lower taxes, but said the city hasn’t kept pace when it comes to investment into the community’s aesthetics. Kenner is borrowing $60 million to improve its sewer infrastructure and now it needs to address other issues.

“We can beat New Orleans,” Denapolis said.

Council members repeatedly stressed that the city still has flexibility on what projects it does with the borrowed money. Councilwoman Jeannie Black suggested filling in some canals and adding underground utilities. Most of the projects proposed by Yenni are concentrated around Loyola Drive and Williams Boulevard. The mayor has said that the improvements he’s proposed are the ones he plans to complete, but none of the projects are tied to the bond issue.

Carroll said that the voters in District One are concerned that there aren’t enough projects in South Kenner to leave a legacy there.

Ultimately, council members said that residents have to believe that officials will make the best choice for Kenner.

Councilman Joe Stagni noted that although he had some reservations about the plan, as did many of his constituents, he now thinks it’s a good idea.

“I think people really need to be able to trust that what we’re saying is what we’re going to do,” Branigan said.

Denapolis agreed with that sentiment.

“You’ve just got to trust us.”

Advocate staff writer Michelle Millhollon contributed to this report.