A Well-Deserved Drubbing At The Polls

Last night, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden’s $901 million bond proposal was crushed by the voters by 20,000 votes out of just over 70,000 cast. The final percentages were 64.02 percent against and only 34.98 percent for.

The prevailing narrative before yesterday’s vote was that it would be a near-run thing and it could go either way. Two assumptions supported that narrative – first, the fact that a virtually identical proposal fell just 3,000 votes short of passage last fall, and second, the fact that a PAC set up by Holden to support the passage of the bond spent over $550,000 in an effort to drum up votes for it.

That PAC could have spent 10 times that amount and this bond wouldn’t have passed.

This proposal is almost a prototypical example of bad politics and policy at work on a local level. For the unwashed, a quick rundown of the events at hand is as follows: for some time, Baton Rouge has been in need of various improvements to its infrastructure. Adding to these needs, which include drainage improvements, the need for synchronization of traffic lights around town and improved law enforcement facilities, the mayor decided to throw in increased parking capacity downtown and an upgrade to the River Center, Baton Rouge’s convention facility. And then to top things off came a plan to build a theme park called Alive along the Mississippi River.

This concoction came before the voters last year and it was beaten; the primary objection the electorate had was to the Alive project, which the mayor and his acolytes attempted to sell as a money-maker which would help pay off the bond early. The voters didn’t buy it; Alive has been an albatross around Holden’s neck since the beginning of this epic.

After the defeat last year, Holden was told repeatedly by his opponents that if he would agree to split out the bond proposal he would be able to get most of the needed improvements through. He refused; instead, the mayor sought to create a special taxing district which wiped out the cities of Baker, Zachary and Central, incorporated jurisdictions within the parish which voted heavily against the bond last year. This set off a major firestorm of opposition; while Baker, Zachary and Central wouldn’t have been assessed the property tax increases or sales tax hikes in the proposal it was widely seen as a parish-wide initiative and to cut out a good-sized part of the parish was downright wrong for all kinds of reasons.

Pressure was brought to bear on Holden not to create that tax district, and he eventually relented, bringing the bond proposal back into the same situation it was last year. With Holden reeling in a major commitment from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber (the recipient of $500,000 per year in funds from the city), which had endorsed the plan last year but hadn’t made a financial and rhetorical commitment to backing it like we’ve seen this fall, it was thought among some of the city’s doyens that the fracas about the special taxing district would be forgotten.

Then came further revelations about the Alive project, namely that there was no clear title to the land it was supposed to be built on. The Canadian National Railroad has a claim to the land going back two decades, and while it seems as though that hurdle could be cleared with a little negotiation the mayor’s people clearly hadn’t done the requisite work to secure the availability of a site they planned to spend $230 million developing.

Or maybe it’s more like $270 million, because it was further revealed that the Alive site, currently known as DeSoto Park, is in need of about $40 million in site and foundation work before anything substantial can be built on it. It was assumed that the state of Louisiana would be taking care of that, but state sen. Hunter Greene was quoted as saying the likelihood of the state kicking in for such a project was shaky at best; Louisiana is looking at budget deficits in the $2 billion range over the next 2-3 years and is in the process of rethinking its entire operation in an effort to stem the tide of red ink.

No matter, said Holden and the rest of the muckety-mucks he reeled in to back this proposal. Baton Rouge Area Chamber CEO Adam Knapp was quoted as saying Alive would “ignite our economy,” despite the fact that the city was rated as the No. 3 job market in the country a month ago. Baton Rouge Business Report publisher Rolfe McCollister offered up a rather nonsensical endorsement of the proposal which invoked the memory of LSU’s national football championships in 2003 and 2007. Then came the Baton Rouge Advocate’s endorsement of the proposal which essentially amounted to “we trust Mayor Holden.” BRAC board chair Matt McKay took to the airwaves last week saying that a projection of 600,000 visitors per year to Alive – a number similar to the figures generated by the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, run by the same Audubon Nature Institute that would operate Alive – was “conservative” because more than 100,000 visitors typically descended on LSU’s campus for each Tiger home game.

Throughout, we’ve been told that the bond proposal, with its sensible traffic light synchronization and drainage, a $95 million police headquarters facility, a new jail, Alive, parking garages and a convention center expansion, would put Baton Rouge in a position of national leadership. Holden sold these rather pedestrian elements as vehicles to turn Baton Rouge into a crown jewel on the world stage, which was laughable. The fact is, while this city does have infrastructure needs which must be addressed one reason why the economy here is among the best in the country is that previous mayors refrained from the kind of boondoggling that the Alive project represents.

The people of Baton Rouge saw through this and crushed Holden at the polls yesterday. At the Old River Road blog there’s a good recap of the effects of all this – and the RedStick Republican blog also does an excellent review of these events. I’ll add to both a little…

First, the Alive project might well be a good thing for Baton Rouge. But if it’s going to take $270 million to get it off the ground, it had better be able to turn a profit. And if it can turn a profit then there should be an investment group willing to plunk down money in pursuit of a return. But when I asked one of the proponents of this thing why private investment wasn’t sought to fund it, I was told that because Alive is an educational facility and not a theme park the business model for it didn’t call for $65 tickets and a “man in a mouse suit” at the gate. In other words, Alive is a good idea and it will help pay off the bond. But it can’t be a private venture because as an educational facility its business model doesn’t call for charging market price for tickets or use commercially proven means to market to its target audience. So in other words, while Alive is the vehicle by which the bond gets paid off early it doesn’t actually need to pursue a profit to fulfill its needs.

Meanwhile, we’re told that Alive will create 24,000 jobs in Baton Rouge. The area’s largest employer is ExxonMobil at 15,000 employees, with an overall impact perhaps 3-4 times that number. Something tells me a theme park won’t be half the economic driver ExxonMobil is, and something else tells me numbers like these didn’t pass the smell test with the people of Baton Rouge. They could see this project floated on a cloud of hot air. And the lesson is that in this day and age, when voters are more suspicious of political elites and big government than ever before, you’d better have solid facts and no BS if you want to get something done.

And second, with so many citizens in East Baton Rouge Parish finding themselves in financial pinches, it’s probably long past time for Mayor Holden to operate the city with a bit of financial discipline. The 2005 East Baton Rouge Parish budget was $563 million; last year it was $679 million. By scrubbing the budget just enough to bring expenditures back down to 2005 levels Holden should have just about enough money to tackle the drainage issues ($179 million) and traffic light synchronization ($46 million) within two years. Similar discipline would enable the River Center expansion ($82 million for Phase II, $40 million for Phase III) in Years Three and Four.

A $95 million police headquarters probably wouldn’t make the cut, though; while most people agree that something needs to be done, a mayor not looking to build monuments to himself would probably hire a commercial real estate broker and find an abandoned strip mall or retail area to build out for far less. If it could work for Amedisys, who turned an old Schwegmann’s supermarket into a first-class corporate headquarters, you’d think that a similar project could be pursued if the police need a new space. As for the plan to spend $38 million consolidating City Hall functions, one wonders where such a number comes from. And $70 million to build parking garages downtown is just plain goofy; if there’s a need for parking downtown, one would have to think the private sector is more than capable of meeting that need.

Does Baton Rouge need a new jail? Probably. And it’s probably an expensive proposition, but it’s one Holden could get a bond for if he would just ask for that. In fact, were it not for Alive, he could have secured a vote in favor of everything.

There is word that Holden and his crew are not finished asking for tax increases, and that something new will be presented to the electorate next year. With the mayor having blown a good chunk of his credibility and approval out the window on thejust-failed bond, though, perhaps it’s time to see if he can’t find some savings in his budget to eat into the cost of our infrastructure needs.

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