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17.11.05

Myths impede honest appraisal of Bossier City budget

There are several myths about aspects of Bossier City’s budget propagated by some of its officials but especially by Bossier City press secretary wannabes. Let’s look at them:

Bossier City’s riverfront development fund is called the “riverboat gaming trust fund.” One media lapdog incorrectly calls it this, but there actually are two separate accounts, their real names being the Riverboat Gaming Capital Project (into which the money from gambling revenues goes and from which money for capital projects gets derived) and the Riverboat Trust Fund (transferred from the other and serves as the vehicle to disburse for other expenses).

Bossier City is asking for a “fee for service” increase for its waste collection (much actually contracted to Shreveport) and Emergency Medical Services. A “fee for service” arrangement is one where a user of a city service is billed proportionally for the provision of a specific amount of a good or service. For example, past a minimum charge water costs are billed by amount of water used and thus are a fee for service.

But a flat fee charged regardless of amount of use of that service, or even if it is used at all, takes on the characteristics of a tax. For waste collection and EMS, all homeowners (and even others) are billed simply because they can be, regardless of whether they actually use the service. These are not genuine fee for service arrangements. If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, guess what it is?

Bossier City has spent money on necessary things so it is justified in hiking fees. Unfortunately, the entire City Council and the mayor in his previous job as city chief administrative officer chose to spend over $21 million on the Louisiana Boardwalk parking garage, a structure that could easily have been provided by the developers.

As recent reports shows, the sales tax boost from the Boardwalk is microscopic compared to this amount and the fallout for existing Bossier businesses already is being felt with the closure of Pierre Bossier Mall’s long-standing Bennigans franchise. This is reflected in the sales tax estimated take in the 2006 budget of a rise of just 4 percent (which the budget itself calls “optimistic”), essentially the inflation rate.

Or how about the $56.5 million for the CenturyTel Center? It lost money in both 2004 and 2005 (although this year’s loss was aggravated by its use as an emergency shelter) and only an extraordinarily optimistic, likely unattainable, 21 percent projected boost in revenues projects any net gain from it in 2006. Why doesn’t the city sell it and make much more a year off banking the interest?

Had the city use of this interest and that derived from the money blown on the garage, the dip into the trust fund would be about two-thirds less. Ego and a misguided view that government can plan economic growth now cause Bossier City elected officials to demand that the citizenry make up for their mistakes.

Bossier City is asking for these increases because the costs of providing these services have increased. The 2006 budget shows that these requests are almost totally unrelated to the intended expenditures of these funds.

Waste collection costs are about the same as they have been, just located in different parts of the budget (the item being grass cutting and street sweeping). But note that while these activities have everything to do with waste creation, they have nothing to do with waste collection.

The fire department budget projected cost increase is about $1 million less than the total the projected EMS hike would bring in. This is because the only significant cost increase in public safety in general since 2004 has been in retirement contributions that a series of unfavorable actions in other parts of Louisiana government has forced upon the city. Only perhaps 10 percent of any increased costs can be tied directly to EMS service expansion since 2004. Spiraling retirement costs are the real, barely-mentioned reason for the increase.

In truth, these increases were proposed because the city could get away with grabbing more revenue this way the easiest, not because of any significant cost increases in the underlying activities they are supposed to be tied to.

Bossier City residents should agree with the increases. They showed why they shouldn’t with their reactions at the Nov. 1 Council meeting. As I have warned, city politicians better remember the 1997 lesson courtesy of Bossier Parish voters, who shot down an EMS increase at the polls (an event that at least one media sycophant seems to have forgotten). And they seemed to get the point by delaying action on the budget.

Bossier City politicians and their media bootlickers who do not admit these are myths are disingenuous and irresponsible. Now that’s something that isn’t a myth. They’re simply stuck on stupid.

16.11.05

Sparring over borrowing mirrors shifting political fortunes

Perhaps notable out of the conflict over the fate of HB 157 was the political maneuvering for future power in the state.

This idea behind the bill originally in part would have allowed the state to borrow in the short-term to fund continuing operations of both state and local governments. By the time it reached bill form, it was only to provide loans to local governments for debt, capital improvements, and business. By the time the House Appropriations Committee finished with it, this looked to be its final resting place.

While opponents had various concerns about it, it seemed that they coalesced behind the arguments made by Treasurer John Kennedy, who after the meeting disputed the Gov. Kathleen Blanco-backed measure at several turns. For example, when Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc contended the state lending this money out would not really affect its credit rating negatively, Kennedy insisted that it would.

15.11.05

In tough times, legislators must tighten their own belts

The sacred and the profane were on display in the travel records attendant to requested per diem and travel expense payments to legislators in the post-hurricane disaster environment. They payments were $113 per day until October when it went up a couple of bucks. (Meaning it averages $14.25 an hour for an eight-hour day, if they even worked that much, averaging the two months’ rates.) Per diems were around $100,000, and travel about another $50,000 on top of that.

Some applause must be given to Reps. Gary Beard and William Daniel for their refusal to accept any per diem (which might have been problematic for Daniel in any event given his recent employment by the Baton Rouge metro government). Also, the House gets credit for voluntarily giving back $1 million to state government and will absorb the costs of the special session, with Speaker Joe Salter’s blessing.

(In fact, Rep. Peppi Bruneau poked fun at the Senate’s not reciprocating by proposing an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill to reduce expenditures, where the Senate could fill in a blank with the amount of money they planned on returning when they dealt with this bill. Before it came to a vote, he withdrew it.)

But jeers must go out to the likes of Salter, House Speaker Pro Tem Yvonne Dorsey, and Rep. Bryant Hammett, who billed taxpayers the per diem for a helicopter ride. Salter and Sen. Pres. Don Hines also created special committees left and right that allowed claiming of per diems; perhaps a little more prudence and efficiency in creating and scheduling these might have saved taxpayers’ money.

This matter becoming public knowledge got under the skin of Rep. Cedric Richmond, who on a point of personal privilege right after passing the appropriations bill, complained how reports such as this continued to make the Legislature look bad by fueling perceptions of lax ethical behavior. He challenged the Legislature to stop acting defensively about these kinds of reports.

Of course, Richmond is following Louisiana elected officials’ tired gambit of shooting the messenger rather than changing its behavior. Even if things had been done more efficiently and travel taken more judiciously, the savings might only be $50,000. Still, every little bit helps and the symbolism is important when the public in many ways is being asked to curb their appetites for government service provision even as their taxes don’t go down and some crawl their ways back from near-destitution after the disasters.

14.11.05

Better for state to pay now than to pay more later

By Saturday, the state brought itself from $305 million to only $117 million in the hole with budget maneuvering. By Sunday, more of the same brought the total down to $94 million. The problem is, to plug the hole this way the price down the road might be higher.

In essence, in a move described as possible only because of the timing involved, the budget got an infusion of $188 million extra because on Oct. 28 the Revenue Estimating Conference bumped down expected revenues and bumped up estimates of nonrecurring revenues. Since the Budget Stabilization Fund receives for disbursement non-recurring funds and as state revenues go down the proportion of nonrecurring funds which may be utilized grows larger, the money has become available.

Instead of chunking a quarter, as has been traditional, of the derived $252 million 2004-05 surplus into the fund, all of it went in. With the $303 million in nonrecurring revenues dumped into the Fund, this had the effect of pushing past the 4 percent limit of total state revenues now derived for 2005-06 by that “extra” (so to speak) 75 percent of the surplus which normally would have been spent on capital projects. But it’s the operating budget now that’s the priority.

13.11.05

GOP primary date change endorsement unlikely to solve dilemma

Eight months later, the Louisiana State Republican Central Committee has endorsed the idea of moving up the GOP presidential preference primary to the second Saturday in February (third if the second happens to be Samedi Gras). Realizing all along that state Democrats would have to go along with this, because they have the legislative majority, the move may make more sense now since pressure by other states’ Democrats on the national party appears to have had the effect of forcing a compromise on the question of the temporal ordering of the selection of delegates to the national convention, perhaps encouraging Louisiana Democrats to go along with a date change.

The apparent decision to allow a few states to hold caucuses between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary seems to have quelled dissatisfaction among many state Democratic Parties. They resented the privileged position of the two states because they got much more of the attention (and spending by the campaigns) of the candidates.

While such fomenting has not surfaced among their Republican brethren in other states, this spring the Legislature took a look at the question of Louisiana’s place in the selection lineup which was particularly disadvantageously behind the southern regional primary when most southern states held their caucuses and primaries. It led to little campaigning for Louisiana’s sparse number of delegates and to high state costs ($10 per voter) to hold the elections.

But moving up a date may not really solve anything. Between now and nomination season, two legislative years remain, giving other states plenty of opportunity to move up their dates, too, stealing some of Louisiana’s thunder. And the southern regional primary may still loom in 2008 in early March which would discourage much in the way of resources coming to Louisiana.

That is, if “mini-Tuesday” doesn’t steal “super-Tuesday’s” thunder. Several states are committed or have talked about putting their selection after New Hampshire on the second Tuesday in February, including southern states such as Alabama and North Carolina. If that were to transpire, Louisiana is back to where it started.

If the state really wants to beat the front-loading of selection at its own game, it would be wise to accept the Democrats’ presumed plan and to schedule in a caucus after Iowa and before New Hampshire’s primary, as some states have indicated they would. Otherwise, because Louisiana is not a large state (even smaller after the recent hurricane disasters) and is not looking to team up with others, it’s likely to be largely overlooked by the candidates and unlikely to draw much more significant participation for the money spent.