The outrage was almost immediate. Baton Rouge and its city-parish government, with an annual budget just shy of $1 billion, can’t find a spare $2 million for each of the next 30 years, beginning somewhere around 2024, to secure $255 million from the feds for critically-needed drainage projects in our flood-prone parish?
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.
Here’s what is certain: There’s enough legitimate outrage here to channel our inner Brian Orakpo and declare, “C’mon, man, what we doin’ out there, man?”
Which is why it’s so unnecessary for those among us to go one louder and amp the incredulity to 11.
In this instance, Fred Raiford, the city-parish director of transportation and drainage, tossed critics the poker necessary to stoke an already raging political fire by declaring $2 million a year doesn’t seem like much, but sales tax revenue isn’t lucrative enough to grow government any faster than it already is under Broome, and no one on the public dime can find a sustainable 30-year funding source.
Question: Can’t those efficiency experts we’re paying find $2 million in recurring expenses to untether?
Here’s a thought: If we’re done paying all the bond attorneys, program managers and engineers getting rich off the sewer overhaul program, then perhaps there’s a legal way to redirect some of the revenue from that ever-escalating, never-ending sewer tax—er, fee—we’re paying.
Anyway, Raiford’s utterance gave those who blame pretty much all of Baton Rouge’s fiscal woes on cash-hording agencies with dedicated revenue streams the Pavlovian opening to attack. So it was surprising to exactly no one when the usual suspects took their mount on the bully pulpit of social media to remind us—once again—that the library system, mosquito abatement, BREC, CATS and the Council on Aging are all sitting on protected public dollars that could—and should—be set free to help pay for stuff like roads, bridges and local matches to improve drainage.
What they and Metro Council members Scott Wilson and Dwight Hudson desire is for agencies like the cash-rich library system and the budget-doubling CoA to voluntarily shed a millage or two from its respective property tax hauls, enabling the city-parish to then proffer a general fund tax of equal amount to effectively undedicate the money on a no-new-net-tax basis.
As theoretical concepts go, it’s a fine one. I’m hardly a fan of independent taxing authorities and wholeheartedly agree their presence—while great for them—results in inefficient government, fiscal inflexibility and, yes, higher taxes. Bluntly, independent taxing authority is a concept in need of eradication from the planet, especially at agencies where those running the show aren’t elected by the public.
Until then, raise your hand if you really believe anyone in government will ever voluntarily give up money. Say what you want about lavish libraries and empty buses, but then also take a look at how hard St. George proponents—with steadfast assistance from state Sens. Bodi White and Dan Claitor—were working at the Capitol this year to minimize that proposed city’s financial obligations to the city-parish general fund should incorporation happen.
By the way, also take note how the mayor of Central is steadfastly keeping anyone—especially members of that city’s council—from touching a penny of that suburban city’s annual $1 million surplus—even if dipping into the profit pot would fund drainage projects in a part of the parish that semi-regularly floods.
Far more important, however, is this: These independent taxing authorities are merely a symptom of the problem, rather than the cause.
It’s interesting that many of those screaming the loudest about the cacophony of independent taxing authorities and dedicated taxes in East Baton Rouge are also the most ardent supporters of St. George, which—if we’re being honest—essentially will be a self-governing, independent taxing authority masquerading as a city. You tell me, once you break both down to its most basic elements, what’s the difference between St. George and the Baton Rouge library system?
Let me be clear, in no way am I crusading against St. George. What I am saying is that movement quit being about the creation of an independent school district a long time ago. It’s now about breaking-point frustration with the mayor and Metro Council, and a desire for greater control over the collecting and spending of tax dollars.
People—like our current mayor, BRAC leadership and those lecturing us on being better together—should take a stroll down memory lane and revisit why the library system and CATS became dedicated taxing authorities in the first place. Those organizations and their public backers, beyond frustrated over the spending habits of the administration and council, said enough is enough. Having lost trust in the competency of city-parish leadership, each fought for independence in a quest for more financial control.
Rather than lash out at those wanting to shape their own financial destiny, perhaps it’s time to start focusing on the real problem: Our collective distrust in whoever is the mayor—this problem began long before Broome took office—and those we elect to the Metro Council.
Solve that and not only can we start dismantling these inefficient dedicated taxes, but we might also find the $2 million a year necessary to put a dent in our drainage problems.