Too few dollars for too many projects

A fishing pier, the Louisiana Purchase’s birthplace and a new fire station are among the projects competing for a limited pool of dollars in the state construction budget.

In addition to banning tweeting while driving and creating a state debt recovery unit, legislators piled projects into the multiyear, $4.6 billion capital outlay plan before wrapping up their regular session earlier this month. They sent House Bill 2, the construction budget, to Gov. Bobby Jindal for his signature.

State government can only provide $350 million in the next budget year to fund lines of credit for repairs, construction and planning. Legislators submitted $677 million in projects.

The overcommitment means Jindal will decide what moves forward. His decision will materialize this fall when the administration submits a project list to the state Bond Commission, which oversees state borrowing.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said legislators need to make the case to the administration that their projects are vital.

“The members can go fight for their projects now knowing there’s only a few that can get funded,” he said.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief financial adviser, said she does not yet have a specific timeline for finalizing the ultimate project list, but noted “it’s customarily in the fall.”

From northwest Louisiana to the toe of the state’s boot, the construction budget includes repairs to a centuries’ old building, revitalization for a depressed town now in the shadow of a new highway and the abandonment of a 1959 fire station whose bays cannot accommodate newer and bigger fire engines.

In New Orleans, the Cabildo dates back to Spanish rule. France transferred the Louisiana territory to the United States within its walls.

The original building went up in flames 225 years ago. The slightly younger replacement sponges water from the ground, causing the mortar base to turn loose from the 1796 brickwork.

The building needs plaster surface, elastic coating, several coats of paint, wood replacement, caulking and glazing. The estimated price tag is $1.4 million.

“The structure of the building is sound. The overlay of the building is what is deteriorating,” said Robert Wheat, deputy assistant secretary of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

The Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments is seeking $250,000 for a high speed rail corridor study.

State Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, quickly pulled the governor aside to talk about connecting northwest Louisiana to Texas through passenger rail service.

The project became part of negotiations between the Louisiana House and the state Senate on the state operating budget during the final days of the session. Legislative leaders agreed to put the project into HB2 as part of the compromise.

“It was part of the ‘go’ or ‘no go’ in terms of the budget process,” Burrell said. He said the governor confirmed he is aware the study factored into the compromise.

Baton Rouge’s Brookstown Fire Station No. 4 is in line for $200,000. Located on Prescott Road, the 1950s-era station houses five firefighters, who respond to roughly 2,000 calls a year.

The station’s air conditioning unit sits in what was once a shower. The garage only accommodates one fire engine.

Chad Majors, administrative assistant to the fire chief at the Baton Rouge Fire Department, said the station needs to be replaced and moved west to optimize response time.

“We’re fighting with the roof a lot,” he said.

The city of Mandeville wants $450,000 to install surveillance cameras.

Mandeville Police Chief Rick Richard said the cameras would assist in crime prevention and investigation.

“These are not and will not be traffic enforcement cameras,” he said.

The city’s application calls for cameras to be placed at 20 sites.

Other requests in the state construction budget include:

$200,000 for the St. Gabriel Police Department to build a new headquarters and move out of rented space.

$23.2 million for Audubon Nature Institute to “continue to provide world-class experiences for Louisiana residents and visitors.”

$2.2 million for a Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame in Baton Rouge.

Leeville, a tiny community in Lafourche Parish, wants $500,000 for a fishing pier to complement a planned boat launch.

The town is in an economic downturn after the opening of an elevated highway steered traffic away from the community.

Parish Administrator Archie Chaisson said he envisions a pier where people can throw a line or just sit and watch the wildlife. The idea is to draw fishermen and increase profits for area businesses.

Like others, Chaisson hopes legislators can convince Jindal to make the funding a reality. He is counting on state Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, to make the case for the community.

“Hopefully ... he can sway the governor,” Chaisson said.