New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell built her political career by being a disruptor, and she won election with 60 percent of the vote, so clearly that’s a quality her constituents wanted in their new leader. Her disruptive side was on display recently when she said that New Orleans needs to rethink its overall taxing practices and proposed shifting money from four tourism agencies to help rebuild the city’s antiquated drainage, water and sewerage systems.
The mayor made clear that she does not want to take all of the money that supports the four agencies: The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the Superdome Commission, the convention center and New Orleans and Co., formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The move would require legislative approval, and the Capitol’s most powerful lawmaker, state Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, has already weighed in as a skeptic.
It would be easy for the public to conflate the four tourism agencies, but each faces a different set of circumstances and challenges. The Superdome, for example, is ramping up to host the 2024 Super Bowl. And anyone who has visited the billion-dollar football palaces in Dallas and Atlanta can attest that while the NFL may love New Orleans as an entertainment venue, the Superdome itself has been overtaken as a site for a championship game.
The mayor’s chief quarrel is with the convention center board, which is proposing a subsidized 1,200-room hotel project at the upriver end of the massive hall to help draw conventioneers away from the French Quarter. The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research estimates the subsidies at $330 million, but the convention center’s consultants say the value is about half that — and negotiations should trim the sum further. The hotel would benefit the city, and the project has support from the tourism industry. But the center has its work cut out to sell the public on the idea of a subsidy.
If the mayor wants to rebuild the Sewerage & Water Board, though, it may call for more disruptive thinking than just trying to grab at tourism dollars. The S&WB’s water and sewerage functions are largely financed by user fees — which would work just fine if the agency could calculate customer bills correctly.
Drainage is another matter. There is a millage that supports the system of pumps and canals, but that’s all the agency collects. The system is antiquated and has been deteriorating for generations.
Mitch Landrieu left Cantrell a mess, and the problem calls for a comprehensive solution. That starts with figuring out how much it will cost to convert the city’s drainage system into something the Dutch would be proud of. The mayor just installed a new director at the S&WB, so Ghassan Korban needs time to learn his agency and come up with a proposal.
Once the city has a plan, leaders can focus on how to pay for it and work on building community support. They can also explore whether there is a federal role in the rebuild, since Washington has spent a lot of money cleaning up after flooding in New Orleans.
Fixing New Orleans’ drainage woes will be expensive, so getting it done will require both disruption and consensus. It promises to be a challenging process, but representative government always is.