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4.8.05

Hightower neglect means pay more for less service

To add injury to insult, not only do some Shreveport residents suffer from low water pressure, they’re paying much more for it, too.

Months ago, the city lectured residents the reason why water rates were zooming upwards was because they weren’t using enough of it. Now they’re using plenty of it but rates aren’t going down because they increase in them have been mandated by law. There are two reasons why more money must get sucked from ratepayers for water.

First, a colossal accounting error turned as to be the main source of the city’s complaints about low reserves in the enterprise fund dealing with water provision. The city tries to set a rate structure that provides a bit of “profit” in each gallon consumed so that during dry times higher usage funds build up that can be drawn down upon later during wetter periods where usage goes down, and hopefully leave a little aside for quick maintenance.

The problem was the rate increases (accelerated, no less) were computed and timed on the basis of this $4.6 million mistake. With some actuarial competence present, the increases could have come later, and perhaps not even as much. We can thank Mayor Keith Hightower for this, who, instead of paying attention to putting managers in place who would catch these things and then riding herd over these appointees, would rather hobnob with financiers, builders, and cronies to build monuments to his reign like convention centers and hotels that will end up costing taxpayers more than they’re worth.

Which leads to the other reason, the neglect of the water and sewerage infrastructure. Selling bonds to fix it can work only in a limited way as, courtesy of the aforementioned Hightower monuments, the city’s bonding capacity has closed in on exhaustion. Thus, the next best way (other than dipping into general tax revenues) to fund repairs is by raising water rates (although given the large amount of needed repairs and relatively small amounts being built up in reserve, only short-term needs can be addressed this way). Thus are the wages of mismanagement which starts at the very top.

So, as residents’ pay more for a trickle of water, they can thank the man who would rather put on a nice shirt to schmooze and to enjoy the glamour of being mayor than roll up his sleeves and get to work on the mundane things that make the city a good place for citizens to live.

3.8.05

Hightower's "Shreveport Shuffle" wearing very thin

Mayor Keith Hightower ought to get a copyright on his “Shreveport Shuffle,” his attempted rhetorical deflections from the shortcomings of his governance. Even so, he wouldn’t make a whole lot of money off of it since his excuses are so lame.

The latest example comes from his response to City Councilman Mike Gibson’s queries about substandard, perhaps even dangerously, low water pressure in southeast Shreveport (which, one might suspect, pays more taxes to the city than any other area of town). Gibson claimed more money was going into building downtown structures than water and sewerage infrastructure, while Hightower responded that more had been spent during his term on the infrastructure.

Hightower’s response misleads in at least three ways. First, unless estimates have changed radically, the eventual cost, over about a two-year period, of the convention center and its related hotel (assuming these are what Gibson refers to) will be well in excess of the $122 million figure cited by Hightower (at least $140 million of local money).

Second, the figure Hightower cites is over his entire administration. More appropriately would be the figure spent over the period during which the two downtown structures are going to be built. That’s not going to be close to the $122 million figure.

Third, $122 million is barely a quarter of the projected infrastructure needs for the city. Put another way, if funds used to build the structures instead had been diverted to infrastructure, about a third of the backlog would already have been addressed. Instead, the backlog remains with the city retaining only enough bonding capacity to address a fraction of the need, thanks to the downtown spending.

Here’s the straight story: Hightower, rather than addressing genuine city needs, chose to spend taxpayers’ money on trinkets that likely will cost taxpayers more than they contribute for many years to come, even as the city crumbles around him. Water pressure problems, which could have been avoided easily with proper planning and allocation of resources, are just one of the first, and probably far too many in the future, symptoms of this neglect.

Hightower can dance around this all he wants in his official communications, but it doesn’t change the fact that his capital spending agenda diverges from the genuine needs of the citizens of Shreveport.

2.8.05

Lake-building frenzy threatens waste, corruption

When the Monroe News-Star ran a series of articles highlighting the questionable wisdom of building more lakes and reservoirs in Louisiana, where it appeared several individuals stood to make huge financial gains out of the practice, one might have thought that, at least for this legislative session, lake fever might have cooled. Indeed, shortly thereafter, HB 518, which would have expanded the state’s power over land in Washington Parish for the purposes of building a lake, got buried in committee.

But never count out the resourcefulness of Louisiana legislators. Instead, a slightly-stripped down version of the bill (co-authored by Rep. Harold Ritchie, author of HB 518) by Sen. Ben Nevers, SB 278, flew through the Senate (twice) without a dissenting vote and drew just three nays in the House. Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed it into law before the end of the fiscal year.

Plenty of noxious features remained in it:
  • Any special expropriation powers were stripped, but that now is irrelevant given a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling which essentially allows taking of private property for any reason
  • Prior owners of land unused, who previously could get their land back at its fair market value, now only can get it back at the original expropriation price
  • Local taxes cannot be levied for the district that would create and run the lake, but it still can get money from the state to create it (and it continues to do so)
  • The board to run it would be appointed by local and state officials, a board with the power to award contracts worth tens of millions of dollars

    Given the incestuous relationships that appear among the principals who have created past lakes across the state and wish to continue to do so, the loose provisions in the act make it ripe for corrupt uses. As troubling is the penchant for the people involved to continue to give evasive or inaccurate information when queried about these projects.

    So, for example, Nevers says he will not profit financially from the proposed lake. However, he is an owner of and involved in several corporations which could stand to make big gains from any lake building or operation activities. His business partner Charles Mizell, who sits on the Washington Parish Reservoir Commission, in one forum claims provision of drinking water is the main purpose of the lake, yet this contradicts the enabling legislation.

    But the lake express continues to roll on. HB 123 passed to create a similar situation in Lincoln Parish, while SB 47 expanded the powers of a similar arrangement in Morehouse Parish. And the State Bond Commission reauthorized funding for Washington Parish’s.

    Why doesn’t the state slow down on this? The Sierra Club, which admittedly is usually wrong on the issues, is right on this one to request a moratorium on reservoir building until the matter is further studied. Why not assess the economic, environmental, and cultural impact, as a whole of this frenzy before money may get frivolously spent and lasting damage done (it’s kind of hard to un-build a lake)?

    And institute more-stringent standards regarding connections between state lawmakers, their appointees, and relatives who stand to gain from it all. While legislation is desirable here, it may not even take that. For example, Nevers and Mizell could pledge, right now, that as long as they remain in government service that they or any business in which they or their immediate relatives have an interest will not do business with any activity connected to these lakes.

    To ignore these items of common sense again leaves Louisiana wide open to the twin plagues of wasted resources and corrupt activities.
  • 1.8.05

    Blanco needs to walk the walk on economic development

    Gov. Kathleen Blanco talks the talk when it comes to trying to attract jobs to the state. But, so far, she hasn’t really walked the walk.

    Meeting a bunch of people, calling the federal government, and going on junkets to Cuba and Asia are ancillary, perhaps often unnecessary to bring jobs and economic development to Louisiana. But where the real rubber is underneath the road is in policy, and Blanco has shown she is a long way from doing what is necessary to produce economic growth in Louisiana.

    No matter how much jawboning and backslapping goes on, Louisiana never will grow economically like it can until two policy-related matters get solved. One, the state’s tax structure simply discourages business formation and flourishing. Because of the homestead exemption most property taxes are paid by business, weird, confiscatory taxes such as a franchise tax based on the amount of debt business has exist, and among the states Louisiana has the fifteenth-highest corporate income tax rate on top of all of this.

    Blanco’s actions here? Speedily eliminate, over the course of many years, a relatively small business tax. Such boldness shocked us all in 2004!

    The state’s reputation for playing fast and loose with government ethics is the other major obstacle. Even if the fiscal environment is made more enticing for business to grow, concerns will remain that it’s more who you know than what or how you do that determines financial rewards in Louisiana.

    Blanco’s decisive response here? After talking big about ethics legislation prior to it, she failed to support any by the end the 2005 legislative session, other than one requiring review of some statewide elected officials’ vehicle purchases. I’m sure that changed a bunch of people’s perceptions about New Jersey South.

    Talking the talk is fine, but eventually you have to walk the walk and (to continue this cliché-fest) put your money where your mouth is. Joyriding and schmoozing isn’t going to cut it; Blanco has to show real commitment to policy change before she can genuinely claim to help to create jobs in the state, much less take credit for it.

    31.7.05

    Will Walker provide leadership for Bossier City's political maturation?

    Lo Walker has lead Bossier City as mayor for a month and the initial returns look good.

    He has promised a more hands-on approach to running the city, a change largely for the better from the 16 years of previous mayor George Dement. While Dement did some politicking from behind the scenes, he was more what political scientists who study local politics would call a “ceremonial” type of mayor – good at pep talks, great at ribbon-cuttings, but not a real policy leader.

    Walker, by contrast, has the potential to provide leadership that in the past decade largely gravitated to the City Council. This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, but a majority of the council over that time period has suffered from a parochialism that has spawned a suboptimal set of attitudes in governance.

    For one, the Council often found itself dazzled by flashy baubles on which to spend money, fueled by the coming of casino gambling and white flight from Shreveport that boosted population numbers. For example, the 1996-2000 council found out about this the hard way when incumbents got ejected because of their decision to build and where to build the CenturyTel Center, as well by their handling of the fire sale at the old Bossier Medical Center, when the voting public tired of the Council’s imperious ways. Strong mayoral leadership could have smoothed hostilities, if the city became determined to build the arena.

    This attitude partly comes from hostility to things Shreveport. Among some long-time Bossier residents, one often gets the impression that they feel they get disrespect from Shreveport (not without some justification for that perception), almost a kind of inferiority complex. While this may serve as a motivation tool at the same time it warps judgments; one gets the sense the main reason for the arena construction was for Bossier to show Shreveport it could one-up it in the category of arenas when area citizens complained about the Shreveport-located Hirsch Memorial Coliseum.

    Finally, the chip-on-the-shoulder policy-making impulse in Bossier stems from the fact that so much policy-making power originates from people of one of two backgrounds, either residents whose families were around before the population boom began in the 1960s, or whose families were connected to the Air Force. Feeling particularly excluded is the city’s growing black population, now around 20 percent of the population. This attitude leads to an insularity that creates a myopic policy-making vision.

    Walker, however, has great potential as mayor to reverse these attitudes. A Shreveport native who spent a good portion of his adult life in Air Force service, he has greater capability to see past the small-town mentality that too often infects the Council, and is willing to provide the leadership to keep this in check. One early indicator is his common-sense decision to broaden notification of city job openings.

    Even if Walker is no spring chicken, this old dog hopefully can teach some new tricks by providing crucial leadership to assist Bossier City in its political maturation.