SADOW: Shreveport Mayor Forums Do Little To Move Needle

While largely low key, the Triple Crown of Shreveport mayoral forums this week couldn’t provide much in the way of information for voters, but it did give the candidates a chance to test out and shoot down some of each other’s main talking points.

Over three straight nights, local television stations presented topical forums, covering policies dealing with crime, economic development, and infrastructure. The format of answers less than a minute gave little opportunity for the candidates selected to participate – Republican former City Councilor Tom Arceneaux, no party Caddo Parish Commissioner Mario Chavez, Democrat Councilor LeVette Fuller, Democrat Mayor Adrian Perkins, and Democrat state Sen. Greg Tarver who opted out of the final one on infrastructure – to speak in more than broad platitudes, but, even so, on occasion succeeded in drawing contrasts to each other.

The embattled incumbent Perkins expectedly aggrandized his record, alleging that under his watch crime was down and the city’s fiscal health improved, pointing to most recent statistics that indicated increased city revenues and lower crime rates. He also took credit for some individual successes, such as pay raises for city employees, the expected buildout of an Amazon fulfillment center, and a supposedly incoming new baseball field with team to go with it in place of the half-demolished Fairgrounds Field, currently still standing only because of a court order halting any further destruction over health concerns.

Only Tarver, the perceived frontrunner, went after these specific claims with gusto. He said the Amazon siting largely came about because of state incentives and wondered why you would tear down the old ballpark just to build a new one when the resources needed – the deal announced by Perkins is extremely contingent and general with no guarantees it will happen or soon or without a large city commitment – could go to combatting the major issue Tarver had articulated, crime.

Surprisingly, none observed that violent crime has increased in Shreveport since Perkins took office, and at best will level at amounts from back then by the end of this year. It dipped his first year in office but dramatically increased in 2020 and fell only slightly in 2021 at a level still well above 2018. The 2022 overall statistics to date he cites are trending more optimistically, largely driven bv drops in battery and business robberies although some categories, especially rapes, are higher. The trend might put the city on par with where it was in 2018, including for homicides/manslaughter which rose 73 percent by 2021 but has decreased substantially so far this year.

His opponents also only alluded to a deteriorating financial situation. While city non-enterprise revenues were up about 7 percent from 2018 through 2021, and the 2022 budget anticipated about the same revenues as 2021, this doesn’t even match the inflation rate over the past 12 months, and certainly not the over 18 percent rise since he took office. General fund reserves increased substantially through 2021, in large part because of federal government largesse in the series of spending bills passed in 2020-21, but is projected to drop in 2022 and substantially in 2023 to pay for the generous pay raises that at this point appear unsustainable without higher taxes.

Worst of all is the ticking time bomb of city debt that stood at just under $1 billion at the end of 2021, the second-highest per capita in the state (Bossier City’s is even higher). A growing portion of this is driven by the city’s need to address a consent decree it entered into with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 to rectify deficient sewage/wastewater collection, transport, and treatment. Already rates have increased twice to fund debt associated with this, but while about $375 million in fixes have been completed, the city has identified $415 million more and warns that hundreds of million of dollars more beyond that will be needed to finish the job, targeted for 2026. Already, the available revenues beyond expenditures from its water and sewerage enterprise operations barely cover interest and principal coming due, meaning either rates must rise further and/or the city will have to dip into tax-generated revenues to support current and future debt payoffs.

For his part, Perkins tried to attack the state – read frontrunner Tarver – for not doing enough, such as making Interstate 20 shoulders and other infrastructure look more appealing to prevent repelling visitors and business. On this issue, Tarver reminded that this was a joint effort.

Yet in the last debate in particular the three challengers there got some licks in on Perkins. At several points they asserted more wasn’t done with to deal with infrastructure because of a lack of transparency from Perkins, meaning the people didn’t trust him to do the right thing. And in the previous encounter when Perkins tried flaunt some woke credentials in saying how he boosted the city’s Fair Share program – which gives “disadvantaged,” mainly minority-owned (at least on paper) preference in city contracts so that nearly a third of contracts now went to such firms, Tarver noted it helped mainly out-of-town firms at the expense of Shreveport small business.

Tarver, as well as Arceneaux and Chavez, emphasized what all five identified as a crucial need, business development, as the trio either own at least in part a small business or have spent a career in the private sector, with stories to match about how the city can spur it and even get out of its way. That gave them additional credibility compared to Fuller and Perkins, who have worked only in the nonprofit sector or for government and could speak only in broad terms.

The candidates didn’t easily draw sharp ideological differences, and sometimes muddled the picture further. For example, at one point discussing how to steer youths away from crime, the liberal Democrat Tarver advocated encouragement of nonprofit service provision while the conservative Republican Arceneaux made remarks sympathetic to Democrat Pres. Bill Clinton-era “midnight basketball” government programs. And Fuller kept stumping for performance based budgeting, a concept more often identified with conservatism rather with than leftist progressivism.

However, she reverted to trendy lefty form with some strange assertions. She complained about Shreveport was hollowing out, with people settling around the fringes and the city using annexation as a tactic to increase tax revenues but which also has the effect of increasing infrastructure costs, and at times sounded like she was blaming people for this that government had to address. She coupled this with a bizarre allegation that Shreveport was “hostile” to poor people and hinted that she would support the idea of inclusionary zoning, or forcing developers to build some lower-income housing  in order to build any in a subdivision or complex that would have the effect of discouraging housing provision. And, Arceneaux was the only one to tell it like it was in saying he would abandon the city’s overpromising, underperforming, and cost ineffective curbside recycling program.

So, some differences were drawn, but while candidate forums at the local level are more useful than those higher up because of the relative paucity of information about these contests, it’s doubtful that this series did anything to change the likely ordering of Arceneaux and Tarver making it to an inevitable runoff, with Perkins, Chavez, and Fuller trailing in that order.

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