RDA’s uncertain future

What does the future hold for the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority?

It’s a question that has been on the minds of many around City Hall since Mayor Kip Holden declared he won’t allocate any funds from the 2015 budget to help keep afloat the agency, which will run out of money late next year.

Were it merely a philosophical matter with the mayor, the RDA might be able to lobby the eight Metro Council members it needs to amend the mayor’s proposed budget and find the $3 million the agency says it needs to stay in the business of cleaning up blight around inner-city Baton Rouge.

But the mayor’s position on funding the RDA seems to have as much to do with his displeasure with its president and CEO, Walter Monsour, as it does with anything the agency has—or has not—done. Somehow Monsour, who ran City Hall as chief of staff during Holden’s first term, is now on the outs with Holden and Holden is making this disagreement personal.

“My office is working to make things happen in Baton Rouge. Walter’s walking around with his hands out,” Holden told Daily Report just minutes after the Oct. 13 meeting at which the RDA board voted to ask City Hall for the $3 million appropriation. “My hands are dirty from working. His hands are clean.”

Monsour declines to respond to the mayor’s criticisms, but his generous compensation package is at least part of the problem. Monsour earns more than $300,000 a year in salary and benefits, which may not be much by corporate executive standards but is more than the mayor or anyone else in city government is making.

Never mind that no one had a problem with Monsour’s salary back when the agency was being created. The mayor and at least some council members have a problem with it now, five years and some $1.5 million later, and they want to know why the highest-paid CEO in local government is asking for money from their cash-strapped budget.

The mayor also disagrees with Monsour over how much support the RDA has received from the city. At the Oct. 13 meeting, Monsour said the city-parish has given the agency just $603,000 in neighborhood stabilization grants over the past five years. Holden says the figure is actually $7.6 million, a figure he derives from counting $7 million in various grants the RDA received through—though not directly from—the city.

Then there are questions about just how much the RDA has accomplished. Monsour points to its two signature projects—Ardendale and the Entergy building site, both of which are in the early stages of design and development. Holden says the RDA didn’t make either of those happen without help from the city, state and Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Whatever the reasons for the animosity, the mayor, in recent days, has taken a more conciliatory tone towards the RDA—though not towards Monsour. He says the RDA is worth keeping, but he wants to see changes that include partnerships with other agencies involved in redevelopment. He also suggests a leadership shakeup may be in order.

“The RDA needs a plan,” Holden said Oct. 20. “We need a SWAT team of community and business leaders to come in, evaluate, and come up with a plan of action.”

Councilmember Donna Collins-Lewis, the RDA’s biggest cheerleader on the Council, agrees the agency might now be better off without Monsour, saying, “I think we need the RDA whether Walter is there or not.”

RDA board chairman John Noland has publicly stated several times that Monsour is willing to step down from the agency. Noland doesn’t want that to happen, he says. But he now thinks “it may very well come down to that.”

“I’m not happy about that,” he says. “But certainly if Walter becomes a flashpoint, in order to preserve the RDA, I would feel the strategy would be to let him go and extend the life of the RDA.”

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