Kenner Council weighs in on how to spend bond money

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Kenner City Council members have ideas of their own for how to spend some of the $30 million the city is borrowing for beautification projects. Councillman Kent Denapolis is suggesting that the city add improvements to the Kenner City Park, seen here Monday, April 29, 2013. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Kenner City Council members have ideas of their own for how to spend some of the $30 million the city is borrowing for beautification projects. Councillman Kent Denapolis is suggesting that the city add improvements to the Kenner City Park, seen here Monday, April 29, 2013.

Now that the fight over whether Kenner officials should borrow $47 million to improve the bedroom community’s aesthetics is over, politicians have a new issue to chew on. What exactly is the best way to spend all that cash?

Mayor Michael Yenni received council approval earlier this month to refinance some of the city’s sales tax bonds with an eye toward generating about $29 million to complete beautification projects on several of the city’s major thoroughfares such as Loyola Drive and Williams Boulevard.

The proposed projects included landscaping, biking and walking trails and sidewalk improvements. In addition, Kenner would be replacing aging bridges over the Duncan Canal.

Yenni has said he developed the projects after conducting resident surveys and holding discussions with his economic development committee. He expects to have the actual funding in place by June.

Although council members have regularly said those projects aren’t set in stone, Yenni hasn’t necessarily agreed.

“Those are the projects I plan to do,” said Yenni, noting that he’s already adjusted his plans to address some concerns. “I don’t have any plans on moving this money anywhere else.”

For the most part, the council seems to agree with Yenni’s vision for the city, although there are some caveats. Several council members said they viewed Yenni’s plan as a broad guideline that still had room for input and tweaking. Others said they are perfectly fine with the projects as they are now. The council must approve all of the projects individually because of a recent charter amendment that requires council review of every contract in excess of $100,000.

Council members Keith Reynaud and Maria Defrancesch said Yenni has always been clear about his plans, and they only expect minor changes.

Reynaud said the city still doesn’t have hard cost estimates, so it may be become clear that some projects must be scaled back or money moved around. On the flip side, some projects could come in under budget, which would free up money for other work, he said.

“We don’t know what those projects are going to cost,” Reynaud said

Defrancesch said it wouldn’t make sense to make wholesale changes in the projects unless there were some serious safety concerns. In addition, some of the projects, like the $11 million worth of improvements to Duncan Canal, just aren’t optional, she said.

Defrancesch added that she’s discussed the plans with her constituents for weeks and was actively involved in coming up with what was presented to the public.

“Why weren’t these issues worked out ahead of time? Why wasn’t that discussed in a timely manner?” said Defrancesch, who added that any substantive changes would need to be accompanied by a top-notch argument.

Councilman Joe Stagni said the public was led to believe the projects they saw were the projects that would be completed. “That wouldn’t be fair to the public,” Stagni said about changes.

But several other council members said they always assumed that when it was time for the projects to really move forward, the council would have input. Council Chairwoman Jeannie Black said the entire process should be collaborative moving forward, particularly considering the fact that Yenni is proposing to cut the city’s capital projects budget to plug a shortfall in operations.

“I was told that we would have some input into what projects would be selected,” Black said. “I’m sure he has his projects, but we have our projects also.”

Black has discussed the possibility of covering canals or removing overhead power lines. Those power lines caused a minor issue during Yenni’s presentations on his plan because they were often removed in his slides, but that wasn’t actually covered by the cost of the projects.

Councilman Kent Denapolis said he has his eye on making some improvements to Kenner City Park in addition to the changes that have been proposed for Loyola Drive. Denapolis would like to see the city reduce the money dedicated to beautification projects by about $1 million, and then move that money to other projects. That would include expanding the walking trail at the park, adding playground equipment and adding a skate park.

“I think (beautification) needs to be done, but maybe we can pull back a little on the scale of it,” Denapolis said. “That park is a jewel in North Kenner.”

Councilman Gregory Carroll, the only council member who voted against the refinancing, said some of the confusion about the process is a result of how quickly the city moved to borrow the money. Residents in Carroll’s district have been concerned that the projects focus too much on beautification and not enough on infrastructure improvements that the older area needs. He’s still holding out hope that some of those changes could be added. Carroll also said ultimately the money available will dictate which projects get done.

“The reality is they could change,” Carroll noted. “(The mayor) may want to do all 10, but he may not be able to do them… It may not be a sound project to do.”