Kip Holden got it right, attacking a resolution at the Metro Council urging the area’s leading hospitals to partner with a Texas company seeking to set up a free-standing emergency room in a building on Harding Boulevard.
“I don’t think anybody can really recall anything of that magnitude where the council tries to interfere with private businesses and tries to dictate to them or get somebody else involved in what is going on,” the mayor-president told the Metro Council. “I don’t know when we’ve singled out one entity to say we want other businesses to help this one entity.”
He mocked the resolution after questioning the business record of the Texas company, Champion. “Come to Baton Rouge,” Holden said. “Not only will we give you tax credits, but our council will encourage other entities to do business with you. And P.S., no credit check and no delay.”
It was a bravura performance, but Ryan Heck stole some of the mayor’s thunder.
Heck, who is leaving the Metro Council after the fall elections, immediately said that the city has been favoring some companies over others for years. “We do it all the time,” he said of the tax credits and breaks given to development by Holden.
Heck is right, but only to a point. As his council colleague Joel Boé pointed out, the breaks are typically given after some sort of public process or request for proposals, so that people can compete to show the city-parish is getting a benefit for the taxpayers’ money.
That is absent in the Harding Boulevard building because it is wrapped up in an agitation about health care deficits in north Baton Rouge.
Heck proposed a sensible amendment that softened the language of the resolution, making it clear it is — as they say in the State Capitol — an “urge and request,” not a demand.
That was a good move, as it is increasingly clear that the issue that brought Wednesday’s council meeting down to near-chaos is not about health care. The Metro Council has little authority over health care, and even less understanding of it.
The current debate is about real estate, filling a white elephant of a building, at city-parish or state expense. Champion or its fellow companies would seek millions for build-out and an annual subsidy of $3 million or more from taxpayers, state or local, as Andrea Gallo of The Advocate has reported.
Maybe it seems a fine distinction, but this would go beyond the financing breaks and credits that City Hall has ladled out over the years. Holden is right about that, but his profile as Mr. Promoter — make that Mr. Hollywood Tax Break — made it easy for Heck to push back.
The resolution may mean little, but elections are this fall for council and mayor-president. One candidate, Councilman John Delgado, was with the 8-4 majority on the Champion resolution. He should have to defend that on the campaign trail for mayor-president, but other candidates should also be pushed to state their position on the issue.
Vague promises about civic unity do not address a culture of giveaways to favored businesses. The breaks downtown have contributed to turning a moribund section of town into a jobs center and growing tax base, but the rules of supply and demand worked there, attracting private investment. To draw investment, north Baton Rouge still needs much work on the basics of crime prevention, street repair and neighborhood and community development.
Throwing money to private developers, particularly in the financially troubled world of health care, should not be the default “solution” to problems north of Florida Boulevard.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.