On Jan. 14, the Metro Council voted 8-4 against putting Mayor Kip Holden’s $335 million package of proposed public safety construction projects, including a new $204 million parish prison, on a May ballot.
How did the administration get it so wrong, again? After three failed attempts at passage of a tax hike to fund capital projects, one might have thought the fourth time would be the charm. But here in Baton Rouge, it’s another year, another failed bond issue.
In 2008 and 2009, when Holden first attempted to push a bond through, at least voters had an opportunity to weigh in on the measures. This time, as in 2011, the council—not the voters—killed the proposal, despite agreeing, in a rare instance of unanimity, that all the projects in the package were worthy and badly needed.
Council members say they’re amenable to putting the bond issue on a fall ballot, though Holden now reportedly says he’s won’t pursue the issue again.
If that’s true, one has to wonder why something of such importance to the community was presented in such a bush league manner to begin with. In hindsight it almost seems the administration wasn’t serious about getting this measure passed this spring.
If it had been, why did it wait until Jan. 7 to unveil the specifics of its plan, just one week before it asked the council to vote on the measure?
A week is not much time to vet ideas, answer questions and explain why a tax hike is the best way to fund more than a quarter-billion dollars of capital projects. Council members had questions. Had there been a legitimate interest in addressing those concerns, more than five business days should have been allotted to do so.
Also, why did the administration present its proposed financing model for the package in such a muddled way? The plan released on the afternoon of Jan. 7 mentioned only the .25-cent sales tax that would be needed to fund construction of the projects, which besides the new jail included a juvenile detention facility, mental health center, public safety complex and judicial annex.
The next day, an item was placed on the council meeting agenda for a .5-mil property tax increase to partially fund operations of the mental health center.
The following day, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said he, too, would need a millage increase to help cover the cost of running the jail.
One might have assumed operational funds would be needed for these projects, but the way the information trickled out and from various sources made one wonder if there weren’t other hidden expenses that would suddenly materialize.
And if the administration really wanted the support of the council, why didn’t it engage in some good old-fashioned politicking? Though it’s unlikely the white, conservative, male voting bloc on the council would have gone along with the tax increase this spring, it doesn’t appear anyone reached out to them to even try to bring them on board.
As recently as Monday evening before the Wednesday meeting, no one had talked to Chandler Loupe, Joel Boe, Buddy Amoroso or Trae Welch about the specifics of the proposal. Any serious attempt to get the council’s support would seemingly have involved talking to all the members, one on one, not just those likely to support it.
FAILURE BY DESIGN?
The examples of how poorly the administration played this hand go on. It wasn’t until the day before the council vote, for instance, that the administration confirmed the sales and property tax increases would appear as separate items on the ballot.
One could argue this plan would have made the taxes more appealing to the electorate. But as it was presented to the council, it just raised so many unanswered questions—like what happens if money is approved to build these new facilities but not to operate them?
And, finally, why did no one in the administration research the Plan of Government, which apparently says tax elections can only be held in the fall unless there is an emergency?
Though Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel tried to argue before the council that the parish’s public safety crisis amounts to an emergency, Council members didn’t buy it and one can hardly blame them.
Given the way the whole process went down, a cynic could suggest this proposed spring bond issue was really a ploy to begin with, a very Machiavellian move that was designed, from the beginning, to fail. But it’s not entirely clear what the wisdom of such a maneuver would be.
It’s also hard to conceive of this administration being crafty enough to pull off such a stunt.
Maybe the purpose was to raise voter awareness and engage the community, in which case, let’s start talking seriously about these projects, the need for them and the best way to fund them. Let’s ask the mayor and the council to engage in real and meaningful dialogue, devoid of scare tactics about federal lawsuits and consent decrees, both with the public and with each other.
If, at the end of the day, a $335 million bond issue really is the best way to fund these projects, let’s make the case in a clear, comprehensive and straightforward manner, because the stakes are too high to do it wrong should there be a fifth time.