The East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority, a public agency responsible for reviving blighted areas in Baton Rouge, is running out of money.
The organization, formed in 2007 by the state legislature, is responsible for kicking off two high-profile projects in Ardendale — formerly called Smiley Heights — and the redevelopment of the old Entergy building at 1509 Government St.
But the agency has been running on fumes for more than a year and has no money left to take on additional blight projects. And by Dec. 31, 2015, the program will have exhausted all of its operational dollars and will have to shut down unless additional funding can be found, said Walter Monsour, executive director of the organization.
Monsour said the Redevelopment Authority is vital to the future prosperity of the city.
“What we’ve done is tremendous, and what we can do is enormous,” he said. “It helps reduce crime, it helps economic development and it boosts the economy of the parish.”
But since its inception, the agency has been wobbling along on unreliable and nonrecurring funding sources. The plan all along, Monsour said, was to prove the agency’s worth, then seek dedicated public funding from the city-parish coffers.
“Everything that we’ve seen, every bit of research we’ve been able to muster over the last several years, still indicates the same thing: You’ve got to have consistent public funding on which we can rely to operate and to be able to create projects,” Monsour said.
He noted that most successful redevelopment agencies nationwide have city funding.
Before taking over as head of the RDA, Monsour served as the chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden, who controls the city-parish’s purse strings.
The two worked together to secure the seed funding for the agency years ago, and Monsour has been well-known as one of Holden’s most well-respected advisers over the years.
But Holden says he’s not planning on stepping in to save the RDA.
While Monsour said he always envisioned the agency eventually receiving steady public funding, Holden never committed recurring funds to the agency. He said the city-parish’s budget is already stretched thin.
“There are too many consequences unknown for me to say that we are able to give him any more money when my first obligation is to make sure this city-parish does not default and that we take care of all the responsibilities mandated upon us,” Holden said.
The mayor said the city-parish is under no obligation to fund the RDA’s operations and noted that the agency has the ability to keep any revenue that is generated from properties it restores.
The city-parish has provided some money from the general fund for RDA projects over the years. Records show the city-parish provided $840,000 for RDA projects from 2010 to 2014.
The Redevelopment Authority has an annual operations budget of about $1.3 million. Monsour’s salary and benefits package makes up about 30 percent of those costs at $365,000 per year. He gets a salary of $265,000 a year and a $100,000 a year in benefits that include a health plan, a vehicle allowance and a 401(k) plan.
The agency has existed to this point mostly on one-time grants and federal funds, including a $3 million grant from the East Baton Rouge Parish Mortgage Finance Authority and $5.5 million in state and federal grants obtained through the city-parish.
In 2009, the agency was awarded $60 million in New Market Tax Credits, which is a federal program targeting investment and real estate projects in low-income communities.
Specialized financial organizations like the RDA apply for the federal tax credits and then deploy them to various causes in their community.
The Redevelopment Authority has relied heavily on the administrative fees it charges for the New Market Tax Credits for operating expenses. The tax credits also helped fund most of the projects the RDA has invested in.
But since the 2009 allocation of $60 million, the Redevelopment Authority has applied three times for additional New Market Tax Credits and has been denied each time. That means there’s no money for projects and no fees for operations.
Monsour said he doesn’t believe that the rejections for tax credits from the federal government is a reflection on the RDA’s work. The program is highly competitive and, he said, the RDA is at a disadvantage because its jurisdiction is smaller than many of the institutions that apply for larger regional areas.
It’s unclear if the Redevelopment Authority will apply again for tax credits because it costs the agency about $50,000 each time to put together the complicated 85-page proposal.
The agency’s board of commissioners has set a public meeting for Oct. 13 to discuss the dire budget situation and options for the future. Monsour said the board will have to decide whether to try to seek funding from whatever source might be available, stretch its current life or focus on winding down its operations and divvying up its assets and responsibilities.
Since the Mayor’s Office has counted the city-parish out for dedicated funding, the agency could seek more one-time grant funding from agencies like it has in the past. Monsour also said the agency has set up a 501c(3) that could accept donations from businesses interested in the RDA’s future.
The agency also has taxing authority and could ask voters to approve a property tax to fund its operations. Monsour said that is not his preference, but it will ultimately be the board’s decision.
Asked about his high salary, Monsour said that another option could be for the board to ask him to step down.
“Part of extending the life might be me stepping down and using my income package to extend the life of the RDA,” he said. “I will do whatever the board sees fit to do, but my main interest is that the RDA continues to operate and function as it’s designed to.”
With a base salary of $265,000, Monsour earns well above the highest paid Baton Rouge agency heads and is in the company of some of the top earning state administrators. Monsour acknowledged his salary is a large chunk of the operating budget, but noted it was set by the board in 2009 and he has not had any increases.
Over the past several months, the agency has lost three vice presidents in Mark Goodson, Chip Boyles and Susan Ludwig, who left for other job opportunities. Now operating with a skeleton staff of seven, Monsour said he won’t replace any staff until funding is secured because he can’t offer anyone job security beyond a year.
He said the board ultimately will have to decide if the agency has proved its worth the community and should continue to move forward.
The agency provided New Market Tax credits that went toward two YMCAs, the downtown Hampton Inn and Suites, the Honeywell International Inc. plant in North Baton Rouge, and the Emerge Center, for communication, behavior and development.
Ardendale was the agency’s first large-scale development plan. Initially called Smiley Heights, the plan calls for 850 residential units, 35,000 square feet of retail and Baton Rouge Community College’s Center for Excellence in Auto Technology and the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board’s Career Academy. It’s a 200-acre tract north east of BRCC near Florida Boulevard.
Monsour said the project is funded through the first phase, because the state and school system are funding their respective institutions. But there is no secured funding beyond Phase 1.
The other high profile project the agency has recently taken on is the old Entergy building in midcity, which was donated to the agency and is envisioned as a retail and commercial hub. Master plan funding for the project was secured from a grant, but there is no funding yet beyond doing the planning work.
The agency also provides small business grants, gap financing loans for commercial developments and affordable housing projects, and it clears titles for adjudicated properties to get them back into the housing markets.
Monsour said it’s unclear what the future of their two landmark projects will be if the agency is dissolved. Ultimately, their assets would have to be reassigned to other agencies.
A well funded Redevelopment Authority could have a transformative impact on the parish, Monsour said.
“There is not another agency with the legal authority to do what we do on a parishwide basis,” Monsour said. “There are disparate agencies out there, but we’ve been able to bring them together. If we had the money, we could do it all in most respects without them.”