Mayor-President Kip Holden offered a spirited defense of his proposed $748 million bond issue Monday, while cautioning that deferring East Baton Rouge Parish’s infrastructure needs another year could compromise public safety.
Speaking to the Baton Rouge Press Club, Holden also emphasized that he will not engage in back-and-forth debate with the Metro Council about the proposal.
The council must approve the bond issue by Aug. 15 in order for the item to be placed on the November ballot.
Holden said this bond proposal is the answer to the requests and criticisms made by voters and council members about the past two bond issues that failed in 2009 and 2008.
The capital improvements bond issue, similar to the rejected proposals, addresses public safety, infrastructure and economic development using a combination of sales taxes and property taxes.
But this proposal lacks the $225 million Alive component, a riverfront development project, and it is split into three packages, rather than making voters choose all or nothing for one package.
“I believe I have now, in good faith, done what was asked of me by the voters of this parish,” Holden said.
The bond issue will address sweeping infrastructural inadequacies in the parish, some of which, Holden said, are paramount to residents’ safety.
The bond issue calls for the replacement of 75 bridges, totaling about $80 million, that have been identified as having structural problems.
“Now we’re talking about the lives of people, and I’ll tell you that it’s not about politics,” he said. “It’s about people willing to take charge, knowing full well that it’s in their ability to prevent harm from happening to citizens.”
Holden used this as an example of why the council should not delay the bond issue.
“Hopefully they’ll see the critical need,” he said. “Now some of them are saying let’s wait until next year, but I don’t think they have the watch or the wisdom or a member of the psychic hotline to tell us when a bridge may collapse.”
The infrastructure component of the bond issue will also address traffic signals, drainage improvements and a downtown parking garage, which were all included in the past proposals.
At the request of a council member, Holden said he will move the $52 million City Hall renovation out of the public safety component and into the infrastructure component for voters.
But that’s the only change he’s willing to make, he said, adding that this proposal has already been changed from the last one to meet the concerns of the council.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “This is our (the administration’s) package.”
The public safety portion of the bond issue will fund a new Parish Prison, a juvenile services facility, and a public safety headquarters for both city police and the Sheriff’s Office that will also have a training facility for all emergency responders.
Holden said the current juvenile services facility is so inadequate that the city-parish could be put under a federal decree to make improvements.
He also noted that the Baton Rouge Police Department’s headquarters, housed in an old school on Mayflower Street, is in desperate need of replacement.
“(Former) Chief (Jeff) LeDuff put it best when he said the only reason that building is standing up is because the termites are holding hands,” Holden said.
The third part of the bond issue will fund the River Center renovation and expansion. Holden said the bond issue, if approved, also will address handicapped accessibility compliance regulations at the facility.
The Metro Council is expected to vote Aug. 10 on putting the bond issue on the November ballot.
Holden said he did not know how the council would vote.
He said his strategy for this bond issue is to sell it to the people by meeting with different groups across the parish.
“I will not engage in debate at this time,” the mayor said. “I will engage in facts and not fiction.”
Holden said he didn’t know whether he’d try again if the third bond issue failed.
Holden also answered questions about District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who recently asked for his office to be included in the public safety tax package presented to voters.
Holden said it would be inappropriate for Moore’s operational expenses to be included in a capital outlay bond issue.
He said he has “a little heartburn” about Moore’s request for $10 million of additional operating revenue on top of the $4.7 million the city-parish already allocates to fill positions, provide raises and other operational needs.
Moore has said his office has been operating at a deficit because of a loss of federal and state grants compounded by the increasing demands from a spike in violent crimes.
He said he would like his office to be added to the bond issue so voters can decide to fund public safety in one package, rather than having to choose separate items.
Moore said if his office is not included in the bond issue, he will pursue a 10-year, 3.5-mill property tax this November.
Holden noted that every agency in the parish is dealing with shrinking budgets and unfilled positions.
“If we answered every call of every agency that says ‘I need an increase in my budget,’ then Baton Rouge would be facing the worst financial debt crisis in the history of our city-parish,” Holden said.