Riegel: The multimillion-dollar question facing Baton Rouge’s most ambitious plans

It’s been nearly a year since a study on the feasibility of building a new Baton Rouge Zoo put the estimated cost at $110 million. Not surprisingly, nothing has happened in the 11 months since to make the project a reality. Not only was the idea of relocating the zoo from north Baton Rouge to the south of the parish controversial, but the hefty price tag pretty much guaranteed nothing would happen anytime soon.

“Where am I going to get $110 million?” BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said recently, noting the park system also needs funds for walking trails, a lake dredging project and a new sports academy, among other things.

BREC isn’t the only agency with a wish list of projects that may never get off the ground. This summer will mark three years since the Baton Rouge Area Foundation unveiled its master plan for overhauling the LSU lakes, which called for dredging the six-lake system and enhancing it with new walking paths, boat launches, signage and lighting. The project was unveiled to much fanfare, but has been on the slow track since lawmakers in 2015 only allocated $3 million in their construction budget for design and engineering work instead of the $40 million BRAF had sought.

How do you ask voters to fund walking trails when they’re still living in FEMA trailers? How do you justify spending public funds to dredge the lakes when traffic on an over-utilized Mississippi River bridge ties up the metro area in gridlock almost daily?

Money for another BRAF project, a mental health diversion center, also failed to materialize after voters last fall narrowly rejected a dedicated 1.5-mill tax that would have generated $5.8 million a year for the center. Plan B calls for applying for grant funding to jump-start some sort of programming. But even if grants come through, they won’t fund anything near what had been envisioned heading into the December election.

Then there’s the Diabetes and Obesity Center, which was to be the cornerstone of the Baton Rouge Health District—another BRAF concept that seeks to brand the health care resources concentrated roughly between Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard as a distinct district. Last summer, several consulting firms submitted proposals to do a feasibility study and business plan for the center. But the upstart health district didn’t have any money to pay for the plan, much less the center itself. Then the August flood happened, presenting the area with some real funding challenges, and the idea for the center got pushed to the back burner.

It’s a familiar story here in south Louisiana. We can’t get ahead of the eight ball, and though we have good ideas and—in some cases—good intentions, there’s always a more pressing crisis, a budget shortfall, a natural disaster that sets us back.

How do you ask voters to fund walking trails when they’re still living in FEMA trailers? How do you justify spending public funds to dredge the lakes when traffic on an over-utilized Mississippi River bridge ties up the metro area in gridlock almost daily? How do you pay for a new zoo when law enforcement agencies are chronically underfunded?

Some would say you don’t, that taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for projects spearheaded by nonprofit agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Others would argue that only those kinds of entities have the vision to embark on such ambitious undertakings, and that you have to get creative and try to find money for the kind of progressive initiatives that move communities forward while still taking care of basic needs.

But how?

The challenge this dilemma poses is perhaps the biggest reason recent issues with the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging really rankled local taxpayers. A new audit shows that for the third year in a row, the quasi-public agency—which has come under intense scrutiny since winning, amid questionable campaign tactics last fall, a dedicated millage that will generate nearly $80 million over the next decade—is operating at a loss. As in previous reports, auditors also found problems with sloppy bookkeeping and accounting, and they questioned the agency’s ability to continue as a “going concern.”

COA administrators say things will change now that they have their windfall. But the problems really are bigger than a chronic revenue shortfall. Consider that the recent audit found that, once again, the COA is violating the terms of its lease agreement with the city-parish for failing to maintain adequate fire insurance on its Florida Boulevard headquarters building. According to a look at old audit reports, this problem dates back to 2011. Six years. And the COA “leases” the building for free, by the way.

But the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, which has nominal oversight of the agency, has never taken any action on the issue, and the city-parish has let its errant tenant stay on because “the administration never wanted to kick them out,” according to Parish Attorney LeAnne Batson.

It’s more than a little maddening, and it reinforces that sense of distrust that public dollars are being misspent. That’s a problem because it makes it that much harder for necessary and worthwhile projects to get the public funding they need and, arguably, deserve.

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