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Hotel opens critical investigation of Hightower governance

This summer, Shreveport citizens got some unpleasant reminders about how badly former mayor Keith Hightower used their resources. Hopefully, such memories will linger if the citizenry gets asked to consider any political comeback Hightower may attempt.

In June, the Hilton Hotel connected to the city’s Convention Center finally opened. Hightower was the driving force behind both ideas being implemented. The Center was questionable from the start, given the economics of the matter, with many experts arguing the city’s idea that its costs would be exceeded by the benefits of convention business was a dream.

The hotel matched the center for dubiousness as a money-making enterprise. No study ever showed it making money for the city (in fact, to justify the state paying about 20 percent of it, Hightower took an existing study which showed it losing big money, altered some assumptions of it in an unrealistic fashion to reverse that conclusion, and brazenly presented it to the State Bond Commission which fell for it).

The biggest justification for the hotel was that the Center would need it to make money. But the Center’s operator foresees deficits as far as they eye can see even with the hotel and has beocme increasingly pessimostic.

Hightower wasn’t the only one at fault here – so is a complaint City Council of whom two members that approved of the deal, Calvin Lester and Monty Walford, still sit on it – but he bears full responsibility for a failed deal concerning sludge treatment. During his first term in office, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency breathed down the city’s neck concerning violations, the city signed a 20-year deal with Bioset, Inc., awarding $23 million to the firm to deal with the problem. Bioset had a patented process that would convert sludge to usable products, saving the city on its topsoil requirements an estimated $700,000 annually.

The alternative was for the city to buy its own equipment at $26 million. This was less than the lifetime cost of the contract ($32 million) which would last only 20 years. Bioset, whose Louisiana’s registered agent is Shreveport lawyer Scott Sinclair and lists as its domicile Houston, gave $2,000 to the Hightower campaign in 2002 and another $1,000 in 2003. It then skipped town in 2005, leaving the city on the hook for backing a $10 million loan for it outside the contract. Last month, a federal bankruptcy court ruled that the city remained liable for the loan.

Given the economics of the matter, even in 2001 it was clear the deal shouldn’t have been made but Hightower pressed for it. Making a few guesses here about how long the contract actually was valid and in the taxpayers’ payoff for the loan, it looks like the deal cost the city almost $15 million, which means not counting interest it will take 21 years of not having to buy sod to make up for this.

Meanwhile, it is likely that the hotel will lose money (both in operating terms and in interest on its $40 million debt) as long as it is owned by the city, will not bring profitability to the Center (estimated over the next several years to lose the city $2 million a year declining in about a decade to only a million lost annually). Throw in another botched city deal courtesy of the Hightower Administration, giving away $5 million to develop the vastly-underperforming Red River Entertainment District, and you get the picture – either Hightower makes lousy governance decisions, or he wasn’t interested in using taxpayer dollars wisely in the first place, or both.

Maybe the city finally has been able to get around to turning sludge into something useful; hopefully, area residents can do the same with these unpleasant memories of what it’s like to have Hightower in an elective position of any responsibility. Painful as these lessons might be, if they pay off by voters recalling them and thereby refusing Hightower access to any such office in the future, in a small way the agony may be worth it.

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