JR Ball: A Christmas wish list for Baton Rouge

With the arrival of the gift that keeps on giving—my annual property tax bill—the Christmas and holiday seasons are officially upon us in Baton Rouge.

It’s so fabulous of Sheriff “Ebenezer” Gautreaux to again think of me—and every other property owner in East Baton Rouge Parish—by sending his holiday tidings of payment-demand joy. Seriously, are there any more iconic “gift” wrappings in this town than Gautreaux’s understated white envelope, decked out in festive green and red type, and Lee Michaels’ little red box with the black satin bow?

One gift you crave; the other you can do without.

Anyway, in the spirit of it’s better to give than receive—at least when it comes to opinions—here’s my Christmas wish list for Baton Rouge:

• A fairer, less complicated tax code: As we’re also entering election season this gift will undoubtedly be returned to sender, but Louisiana will continue to bring up the rear in pretty much every important business and economic ranking as long as weak-kneed governors and state legislators continue to embrace a byzantine tax code that’s made semi-reasonably fair only through scores upon scores of credits, rebates, deductions and outright exemptions that require a battalion of tax attorneys to decipher.

Sadder than Tiny Tim’s crutch propped in the corner of the Cratchit home is the pathetically real fact that there’s several expertly-researched tax overhaul plans doing little more than collecting dust in the bowls of the State Capitol.

• ITEP compromise: Both sides of the tax-giveaway debate have a point: the property tax exemption is critical to big industry, especially given the state’s previously mentioned crazy tax code, and companies are abusing the system with the help of rubber-stamping politicos, denying preciously needed property tax dollars to K-12 education in particular. The goal should not be to eliminate the Industrial Tax Exemption Program but to toughen the standards by which companies qualify. That’s unrealistic, however, given the current tax rate mess and our passion for having an effective tax code on par with Texas, which, by the way, has a less generous ITEP program.

• Wrangle retirement debt: Indeed, there’s been some tinkering with the system over the past year to semi-address an unfunded liability problem that threatens to swamp the city-parish budget within the next 20 years. Frankly, such efforts are hardly enough, with the impact already being felt by retirement and benefit obligations gobbling an increasing percentage of the budget. Undoubtedly, the overabundance of current and retired city-parish workers will balk at even the mention of any benefit reduction, so the emphasis should be on changing the rules for future hires. Failure to take bold action now will later lead to either the need for massive tax hikes or, at worst, a bankrupt Baton Rouge.

In the spirit of it’s better to give than receive, here’s my Christmas wish list for Baton Rouge.

• Planning over politics: Rouzan’s hideous soon-to-be green monster that will be the Sprouts Farmers Market “living wall” is not only threatening to swallow Perkins Road but is also the latest example of political connections trumping sound planning. Tommy Spinosa, the TND’s former owner, leveraged his influence with then-Metro Councilman John Delgado to get a setback waiver that’s allowing this eyesore—and potential safety hazard. Baton Rouge actually has outstanding building codes and planning rules, but both are regularly waived by politicians to keep donation-making builders and developers happy. One way to lessen the Metro Council’s influence is requiring a supermajority vote to override decisions made by the Planning Commission.

• Planning over politics II: Speaking of waivers, given the impact of the August 2016 floods and everything we’re learning about the impact of climate change, it might be wise for the planning director, the commission and anyone else who has anything to do with the building of stuff in this parish to get serious about enforcing—and even strengthening—the rules about floodplain construction. On our current path, these folks are setting Baton Rouge on a path to have history repeat.

• Building trust: If, as Chris Thompson of the Fund for Our Economic Future tells us, “collaboration moves at the speed of trust,” then Baton Rouge needs to do some serious work on its trust problems. Two suggestions: 1) establish an East Baton Rouge Parish leadership council, and 2) let St. George go without a fight if voters there elect to carve an independent city from the unincorporated suburbs.

The primary takeaway from the Cincinnati canvas trip was positive change in that city was driven by business leadership. The issues facing Baton Rouge—as well as dearth of major locally headquartered companies—makes clear any leadership council here will have to include real, not self-anointed, leaders from beyond the business spectrum. Most critical is the collective whole of this diverse leadership council having enough financial or influential clout to not only implement change, but also remove from office anyone who gets in the way.

As for St. George, fight like hell if you want to stop the incorporation effort ahead of the vote, but once the people have spoken let it go—no matter the outcome. The long-term damage that will be caused by protracted legal fights to an already frayed parish will be far worse than any financial hits to the school system and city-parish budgets.

• Role of government: Once trust begins to develop between the various factions of our parish, the next move is to collectively define our expectations for city-parish government. The days of limited government, for better or worse, are gone. The focus now should be on 1) effectively delivering services, not creating jobs or third-party contracts, and 2) doing so in a fiscally-efficient manner. Make progress there and we can then talk about adding at-large Metro Council seats and slowly unraveling the bevy of dedicated taxes and independent taxing authorities.

• Go to medical school: Rather than chase economic development fantasies, let’s focus efforts on sectors where this region can excel—such as medical delivery and research as well as sustainable energy sources. Amazon’s HQ2 decision taught us all the importance of ready-made talent. Well, Baton Rouge has such talent in the medical and energy sectors.

While we’re at it, let’s get BRAC off the city-parish payroll so the business group can operate independently. If that organization can’t cover the $350,000 loss of revenue through donations, then there’s something wrong with BRAC.

• Find some angels: Baton Rouge entrepreneurs have been lamenting the need for an angel investor network for more than a decade. Enough already, somebody please make it happen.

• Traffic woes: LSU, our flagship institution, and local law enforcement need to do something about postgame football traffic in south Baton Rouge. Perhaps if the police weren’t busy giving so many motorcycle escorts to VIPs in taxpayer-owned black SUVs, then maybe more officers would be available to help regular folks, including those living within a few Tiger Woods drives from Tiger Stadium, get home in under three hours. 

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