The Jan. 24 meeting of the Bossier City Council provided a perfect summary of the last 25 years of city governance: building monuments instead of helping people.
It started off innocently enough, with a bid opening. When the city bids out business (much less often than it should according to best practices), interested bidders have theirs revealed to the Council publicly, and then the city makes the decision who to go with or, if just one qualifying one received, whether to rebid.
The project was to construct a statue of Walter O. Bigby, the politician for whom the northern extension of the Arthur Ray Teague Parkway is named, at the completed roundabout. That decision was made over two years ago as Ordinance 165 of 2020 at its Dec. 15, 2020 meeting as holidays approached and Wuhan coronavirus restrictions remained in effect. The projected maximum bid was $330,000 and attracted several supplicants.
A citizen during the mandated public discussion period, at first perplexing no party Council Pres. Jeff Darby, wanted to speak about the placing of the statue, the gist of her argument being that the city had better things on which to spend that chunk of change than a monument in the middle of a roadway. She didn’t say it, but she might have added that the whole roadway already would bear Bigby’s name, so what more honor did the city have to bestow; why plunk down additional taxpayer bucks on a hunk of something that hardly anybody would notice that would gather little more than exhaust fumes and bird droppings?
(We really don’t know how it got to what it is, or what it will look like and of what it will be composed. Ordinance 165 merely allocated $400,000 for “beautification” of the carriageway. Over the next two years, the idea transmogrified to ponying up 82.5 percent of that to place a statue, specifications detailed in bid package P23-01 released to bidders just before the end of 2022, according to a published public notice. The details we don’t know without a public records request, because the city’s bid posting site refuses to list it among closed bids and won’t list any of any kind, for that matter.)
Technically, the horse had escaped the barn and all the Council was to do that day was to accept the bids. Nonetheless, the chief defender of money wasted by the city, Republican Councilor David Montgomery, had to have his say. He rambled something about the naming process of the Carriageway and how monuments ought to honor female veterans and others, not addressing in the least how general beautification had translated into what the citizen called “idolatry” or justifying the amount of money spent on that specific item.
Things then quieted and the bullet seemed dodged, until the final reading of an ordinance to chop down to $500,000 the maximum payment to SporTran for 2023. Shreveport’s quasi-public transit agency after the previous Council meeting with introduction of the item – less than a month after the $900,000 budget had been approved – had announced it would have to discontinue in Bossier City running established routes outside of the early morning and late afternoon on weekdays only, including paratransit.
Knowing what was coming, the living politician statue already in Bossier City, Republican Mayor Tommy Chandler, delivered a bizarre prepared statement that he was for the cuts before he was against them because he claimed himself blindsided by the Council and it was stupid timing to slash the budget right after approving it, but as long as he was along for the ride he wanted to see the chopped out funds go to pay for things like additional public safety and elderly services. Further, he said the rationale for moving money around to shore up city finances wasn’t true because the city fiscally had no problems.
That view would receive full backing, on a current basis, at the end of the meeting. City Finance Director Angela Williamson then gave her monthly report on city revenues and expenditures. At the end of last year, the reports revealed that the city was 27 percent higher in revenues, driven by a 22 percent surplus in sales tax collections, or nearly $73 million higher than budgeted. And budgeted costs were 4 percent less, or about $5 million. In essence, the city was left $78 million better off than had been anticipated.
But between these in the meeting, the proverbial hit the fan. Several individuals, some city residents, most persons with disabilities, and all users of SporTran into and out of Bossier City, testified how the cuts would cause major disruptions to their lives and people and businesses they knew. Perhaps most humiliating, Darby earlier had recognized and welcomed area students, only to have one them later speak about how his life would be negatively impacted by these service cuts.
Clearly, councilors were caught flat-footed by this – but not more than Chandler and Williamson, who couldn’t provide figures on how much the city spent last year on SporTran (GOP Councilor Brian Hammons thought it to be around $1.1 million; Williamson suggested even higher) or how much of that involved paratransit. At the conclusion of aggrieved testimony, Darby on the one hand proclaimed that “money only goes so far” but then on the other hand Hammons proposed a hasty retreat for revisiting the matter in not just two weeks but four weeks.
This is tantamount to surrender. The city coughed up about $85,000 a month last year for the service. That means $170,000 already will be out the door if a decision to cut comes in a month, leaving $330,000 for the other ten months and even more draconian service cuts.
And politically it has to be surrender, because of the absolutely horrendous political optics of pitting mass transit service, especially for those with disabilities, versus a statue. What people will remember – or what they will be asked to recall by potential challengers to every elected official in 2025 if the cut goes through and the statue erected – is how you had a Council and mayor thinking it was groovy to spend $330,000 on a statue of a reformist Democrat politician/jurist who died 42 years ago built in the middle of a road already named after him in place of spending that and a little more to prevent stranding people with disabilities and others that kept them from going to work, church, grocery shopping, and medical appointments.
Add to that another subtle reminder during the meeting that city elected officials are more interested in accruing credit to themselves than serving people. The engineering monthly report briefly mentioned the 2022 Citywide Improvements Project as bring half complete, and a major part of it begins construction this week. This is the formal name for slush fund spending by the five district councilors within their districts, as recommended by them, as well as general projects across the city on behalf of the two at-large councilors. Creating this $1.7 million pot for councilors to dole out at their pleasure allows them to brag to constituents how they personally delivered certain items.
Fortune has shined on the 2022 version, as revealed earlier in the meeting when the Council approved a change order to add projects because the original list costs had come in way under, so it added $365,500 more of these (and there’s still about $60,000 left in the second phase unallocated). Which sets up another way of looking at the SporTran cut issue: with their desired projects all funded and money left over almost equaling the proposed cut, they could blow that on more pork or keep their SporTran contribution whole. Guess what they chose?
These types of comparisons often draw, particularly from one councilor, an entirely disingenuous complaint that one is an operating expense and the other a capital item, as if when the city incurs debt – and as the engineering report reminded, just its current projects put the city on the hook for just over $100 million, most of which is debt-fueled and as much as the city’s entire debt in 2005 or more than twice the total debt today of Lake Charles – this makes its one-time uses unimpeachable and out of bounds for criticism relative to ongoing expenses. This view tries to hide the fact that the money for debt didn’t fall from the sky or came hot off a city printing press – it comes from, now and in the future, city revenues that could be allocated for all sorts of other things, such as mass transit. In 2022 alone, Bossier City – excluding on debt for the enterprise functions of water and sewerage – will have paid back, out of current revenues, $21 million in debt due and interest on the rest leaving through 2046 nearly $550 million to go.
The $400,000 in question represents about two percent of that. Recognize that a good chunk of the over $200 million in non-enterprise debt is sunk into, yes, monuments of various types built in the last quarter-century: a money-losing arena (whose typical annual losses are about the size of the proposed cut), a high-tech office building, a parking garage for a landlord that went into receivership, and the carriageway to no place jonesing for a statue. With the partial exception of the last named, city government didn’t need to build any of these and all could have been built by the private sector had politician egos been removed from the equation.
So, the statue question is but a small reminder of how Bossier City’s elected officials in this period – throughout which Darby and Democrat Councilor Bubba Williams served in its entirety and Montgomery most of it – utterly failed the citizenry because they built these monuments to their egos while needlessly mortgaging to the hilt the public’s future. It is an entirely consistent part of their reckless behavior which now beggars the citizenry, whether that manifests itself in an inability to offer permanent pay raises to many city employees, allocating parks and recreation services to the highest out-of-town bidders that freezes out residents, not offering rate relief for higher-than-typical property taxes, or chiseling SporTran riders and especially the most vulnerable of the lot.
And now comes the most ludicrous part of all. Chandler and Darby are out there talking about having to make spending choices with the implication SporTran services have to go onto the chopping block – when the city has $78 million more in its coffers than it expected at this time last year. With that largesse, it would be great if the city began paying off early part of the hundreds of millions it owes, which would reduce interest costs, which would carve out more money to keep SporTran service at full strength.
Or, they simply could use a tiny portion of the bonus for that purpose. After all, Chandler himself said the city was in excellent fiscal shape, and it’s not like it spending for a new service. However, that possibility shouldn’t distract every city resident from the crucial question at hand: why are Chandler and councilors so eager to spend $330,000 on an idol while begrudging those without independent means of transportation $400,000 for mass transit they already access?
Statues are tumbling lots of places; this one shouldn’t see the light of day. If Chandler doesn’t do this on his own by cancelling the bid, the Council needs to reject it and reapportion the funds to other more helpful beautification efforts like planting a few trees, shrubs, and other flowering plants. And it needs to leave the SportTran budget lightly molested, if not increased in response to encouraging statistics about steadily increasing ridership, especially in a manner to help out more vulnerable citizens.
Whether this happens depends on how well old dogs learn new tricks. It might be a hard sell to those councilors so used to pointing at various baubles while puffing out their chests and telling the world how they did that with other people’s money that they now have difficulty in remembering they are there to serve the people’s needs, not themselves or special interests.