For years, Kenner officials and members of the city's Hispanic population have looked forward to the day when the city would build a modern, new Hispanic Resource Center and move out of the double-wide trailer currently being used, which is in serious disrepair.
Last year, that dream appeared to be getting closer to reality, with the city having set aside around $500,000 of the estimated $844,000 the new center was expected to cost.
On Thursday, however, the City Council voted 5-1, with one member abstaining, to move $396,000 of that money to the city's police and fire departments, a shift Mayor Ben Zahn said was necessary to upgrade outdated equipment and facilities. Some of the money will also be used to pay for cost associated with lawsuits filed against the city.
Zahn said he didn't support building any new high-priced government buildings, especially when the fire and police departments need equipment and building repairs.
Instead, he proposed that the city buy a lot next to the current Hispanic Resource Center for new portable buildings and parking. The mayor asked the council to add the proposal to the meeting's agenda, but because it was a late addition, it required a unanimous vote. Two members objected, so the purchase can't go before the council until next month.
Advocates for the new center objected to shifting the money to first responders. The Hispanic Resource Center opened in 2003 and, despite its name, assists people of all ethnicities in learning English, basic legal tasks and buying a home, among other services.
"We have finally gotten to the point where we think we can achieve this very worthwhile project," Conchita Sulli told the council. "We are asking for space."
After the vote however, Sulli was less conciliatory. "They have forgotten us," she added, vowing to mobilize the city's Hispanic voters.
Ernesto Schweikert noted that when he came to Kenner from Guatemala 40 years ago, the city opened its arms to him. The Hispanic Resource Center, he said, has the same aims. "It's not an exclusive thing, we want it to be inclusive," he told the council.
Ryan Bergeron, the city's interim fire chief, said the city's fire department is in desperate need of new trucks, protective gear and station repairs. The police also need a fund from which to purchase new equipment, Zahn said.
"I am not going to build any building in Kenner when we have first responder needs," he said. He also said attempts to paint the move as anti-Hispanic were a campaign to spread disinformation.
Discussion among council members turned heated when Mike Sigur, a proponent of the shifting the money, accused the two opponents, Keith Reynaud and Maria DeFrancesch, of standing to profit off the new building because they own nearby property.
"You should be ashamed," a clearly upset DeFrancesch said. "You should be ashamed." She said she didn't care what happened to her property there but in order to avoid the appearance of bias, she abstained from the vote. Reynaud voted against shifting the funds.