Failing To Find $2 Million For Drainage In A Billion-Dollar Budget? Welcome To Baton Rouge!

There is surely competition, as the examples of competently-run local governments among Louisiana’s urban areas are few to nonexistent, but if there’s a more egregiously wasteful and stupid administration than that of Sharon Weston Broome’s Baton Rouge we haven’t seen it.

And the best lesson to demonstrate this is the East Baton Rouge Flood Control Project, for which Rep. Garret Graves did yeoman’s work putting Baton Rouge in position to update its drainage capacity to befit a city of the size its metro area has achieved. If only the city-parish’s leadership was up to Graves’ standard

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves helped secure the $255 million in federal funding nearly a year ago from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the East Baton Rouge Parish Flood Control Project, which has been on the books for some 30 years but was never funded until last July.

It calls for widening, deepening, cleaning out and otherwise improving five key drainage canals that run through the parish: Blackwater Bayou, Beaver Bayou, Jones Creek, Ward’s Creek and Bayou Fountain. It’s unique because the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t typically fund such specifically local drainage projects. Had the work been completed prior to the June 6 storm officials say the level of flash flooding could have been significantly reduced.

“The flooding we saw last Thursday demonstrates the urgency of this,” Graves says.

But the projects haven’t moved forward because neither the state nor the city has put up a local match, which amounts to $65 million. While that may sound like more than either cash-strapped government can afford, the commitment is not nearly as onerous as it sounds.

For one thing, the money doesn’t have to be paid until after the projects are completed, which would be  around 2024 if construction started today.

More significantly, the money can be paid back over 30 years, meaning the actual amount needed on an annual basis is just a little over $2 million.

On top of that, Graves was able to negotiate the local match down from the customary 35% of the total cost to 25%.

“That’s a really good deal,” he says. “That ten percent difference, actually, is huge.”

All that’s required to draw down that money is $65 million from the local level, and that $65 million can be spaced out over 30 years. Meaning East Baton Rouge Parish needs to find $2 million per year over 30 years amid a billion-dollar local budget.

Aaaaaand they can’t do it. They’re broke, you see.

“I’ve asked that question and I understand it doesn’t sound like much,” says Fred Raiford, city-parish director of transportation and drainage. “But it’s about being able to commit to a funding source every year for 30 years and our sales tax revenues haven’t gotten where we need them to be. We’re looking at a zero-based budget again for the fourth year in a row.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards notes that the city-parish is the official sponsor of the project at the local level but says, “The state recognizes the importance of this project funding and … will continue to look for ways to assist in moving the project forward.

City-parish Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel says the mayor and governor have been in contact and will work together to find a solution.

“We are not going to let this money go to waste,” he says. “It’s been too hard fought and it’s too important.”

Meanwhile, Graves is warning that this is a “use it or lose it” scenario, because if Baton Rouge doesn’t hook in a match for that federal money somebody else will, and the next time Congress revisits the federal budget it’s entirely possible they’ll redirect that money and it’ll be lost.

Which means there’s a fresh round of folks, political and otherwise, who are demanding that the city-parish start prioritizing basic infrastructure over stupid and frivolous spending which serves ideological or crony-political purposes at the expense of the physical needs of the area.

An example might be the massive amounts spent on libraries and buses used by few in Baton Rouge. Mostly unrelated is the program management contract let for the MovEBR road improvement program, which has some 16 firms included and spends the better part of a million dollars on contracts for consulting, marketing and PR firms (who are politically connected to Broome) as part of an outlay for the building of roads. There is a well-justified sense that the Baton Rouge budget is a bit like a big-box retail store in the aftermath of a hurricane, and the usual suspects have broken through the front door to loot the place.

The Baton Rouge Business Report’s J.R. Ball let loose on the city-parish in his latest column…

Is this a joke?

A parish just recovering from the mother of all floods in 2016 is stretched too thin to dig up what amounts to 0.2% of its ever-escalating annual budget? A city still drying out from the swamping of an early June super soaker is too cash-poor to pay for the very drainage and flood control projects Mayor Sharon Weston Broome claims is a big-time priority for her administration?

No, I’m not making this up, begging this question: Who picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue?

Even going all-in with the full $65 million match amounts to 2.5% of what Broome and the Metro Council will spend this year on stuff like salaries, retirement benefits and a communications department that appears to spend much of its working moments spamming out “look what I’m doing” emails for council members.

If $2 million a year is the number, I’ll take the over on what we’re spending on consultants and studies.

Maybe we can get the money from those fancy parking meters coming to downtown … if any ever actually get installed.

Until then, if we are that broke, then why in the name of “fiscal sanity” are we paying HNTB for … wait for it … a study that ostensibly will tell us how to improve flood-reducing drainage?

So destitute is Baton Rouge that city officials—once it became known the money U.S. Rep. Garret Graves worked so hard to secure is in jeopardy—initially went with transferring blame to the state, claiming taxpayers across this banana republic should foot the bill.

Honestly, why should taxpayers in New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Shreveport and elsewhere have to dish out a financial assist? Sure, pop Ascension and Livingston parishes for some jack as both stand to benefit, but these are East Baton Rouge drainage canal projects and responsible government demands East Baton Rouge pay for it.

With no immediate bailout from the state, huddled masses of city-parish officials—and God knows how many members of the good ol’ boy network—are now ciphering ways to finagle dollars attached to a separate federal bounty, hoping it will magically unlock this new chest of federal treasure.

Ball’s column then trailed off into clownland attempting to disparage the St. George incorporation movement as related to the flood control funding issue, but his basic premise is sound – namely, that finding that $2 million out of a billion-dollar budget should not be difficult.

The reason it “can’t” be done is nobody in the Broome administration has the stones to claw that $2 million out of bloated budget items which serve special interests the mayor-president is in bed with. Not when she’s up for re-election in 2020 and nobody is particularly impressed with her performance to date.

But here’s the unfortunate reality for Broome – life doesn’t give a damn about your petty little political deals. Flood control and drainage don’t have R and D behind their names. If you want a job like mayor-president, you’d better be willing and able to address issues of basic infrastructure, or else you’re going to watch street flooding and cars floating down boulevards every time there’s a major thunderstorm.

In a sane world there would have been firings up and down Broome’s staff over the fact none of the federal dollars had been drawn down by the time that rainstorm hit two weeks ago. But we don’t live in such a world.

Not in Sharon Weston Broome’s Baton Rouge. She’s proven that beyond a doubt.

Interested in more news from Louisiana? We've got you covered! See More Louisiana News
Previous Article
Next Article