Just because there is a need for community redevelopment in north Baton Rouge, should the city-parish government start giving away property tax breaks without a real plan?
We don’t think so, but the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council wants to start with tax breaks without looking into the root causes of the area’s decline or into comprehensive strategies about how it can rise again.
There are a number of competing chefs cooking in this kitchen, with the resulting confusion: Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis counted off the different proposals that are kicking around the political process. They include Together Baton Rouge’s efforts, state Sen. Regina Barrow’s economic district, the new Blue Ribbon Commission spearheaded by Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel and now the tax-abatement district pushed by Councilman John Delgado.
“I don’t know why we can’t get on the same page,” Collins-Lewis said.
We agree with that.
The new North Baton Rouge Economic Opportunity Zone encompasses properties inside Baton Rouge city limits north of Florida Boulevard that don’t fall in the Downtown Development District or are owned by the airport, which has its own tax regulations. The proposal was introduced last year but deferred several times over boundary lines.
There is a markedly political tone to this process: Developers within the district may apply to the Metro Council for exemption from paying taxes on business improvements for five years, after which the abatement can be extended five more years.
Delgado said because land in the area costs “next to nothing,” the abatement will encourage businesses to open up shop in the community.
Maybe so, but we wonder if the tax abatements will pay for themselves. Mayor-President Kip Holden should look carefully at the potential costs to the city. We would argue that provision of public services of the highest quality, including combating crime, is part of a more reliable long-rate development plan. That costs money.
Tax breaks at the local level have their place: The rebates that helped redevelop downtown buildings for hotels, providing jobs and tax revenue over time, paid out far above the cost of the original tax breaks.
But the playbook for the Downtown Development District, a much smaller area with an existing infrastructure for its businesses, is vastly different from designating a wide swath of residential and commercial properties as a tax-break zone, courtesy of the local council member.
While Councilwoman Tara Wicker voted for the district, she also emphasized that it would not be “the magic bullet” that sets everything right north of Florida Boulevard. We could not agree more, but we question going ahead with the tax breaks — property developers are an enthusiastic special interest at the Municipal Building — when the overall plan is so much in the way of good intentions and not hard data.