JR Ball: Why is Baton Rouge so dedicated to failure?

In his latest column, Business Report Executive Editor JR Ball says if we’ve learned anything in Baton Rouge over the past few years, it’s this: Dedicated taxes—and independent taxing authorities—are a waste of taxpayer money.

“Such, at least, is the case if one has even the slightest of interests in concepts like fiscal efficiency or living in a world where paying for our ‘needs’ trumps hurling money at our ‘wants,’” Ball writes. “Oh sure, it’s a fabulous way to live off the taxpayer dime if you run one of these just-show-me-the-money entities.”

Even more spectacular, he notes, is if the agency happens to be one where the hiring and firing of those in charge isn’t up to the voters. Such a setup gives these groups almost unfettered power, he writes, noting that whatever dollars these groups siphon from voters is tagged as “dedicated” funding—meaning it can’t be touched by anyone else.

Ball says it’s a good gig if you can get it but it’s not beneficial to the rest of us.

“Don’t believe me? How’d that whole ‘moving the zoo’ affair work for you?” he asks. “What about CATS? Remember the library system ‘hiking’ the property tax millage on what was supposed to be a simple renewal? And dare I mention the zaniness that is the Council on Aging? They get the money. We get mad. And the critical needs of Baton Rouge get ignored.”

The library system alone is said to be is sitting on at least $60 million, Ball writes. One insider says BREC has a cushion of $30 million while the rest of Baton Rouge has gotten nothing to address streets which are approaching third-world status.

Acknowledging it’s good business to have a rainy day fund, Ball questions whether it makes sense for parks and libraries to sit on a pile of money while ever-growing unfunded pension and benefit liabilities are starving the general fund budget.

“Here’s the brutal truth: We created this mess,” Ball says. “Our long-standing distrust of the Metro Council is what gave birth to the independent taxing authority, figuring it was better to have those running the public school system, BREC and the libraries come directly to us for their cash.”

The irony, he adds, is that outside of public schools citizens continue to allow the mayor and Metro Council to handle the spending on actually important items, like public safety and infrastructure.

And whenever some special interest groups—like those backing CATS or the COA—gets mad over how the council is doling out money, they either concoct a special taxing district or simply get a dedicated tax, removing the politically divided council from their business, he writes.

“We’re the ones allowing these groups to schedule tax proposals on off-date elections, enabling the employees and zealots of an agency to flock to the polls and shove another tax down our throat. Which explains why we pay so much for fancy soccer fields while paying so little to repair dilapidated bridges and roads with potholes the size of bomb craters,” Ball says. “Let’s face it, Baton Rouge is a town that loves paying for life’s “wants,” while ignoring its “needs.”

Read the full column. Send your comments to editor@businessreport.com.

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