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Non-performing NW LA state property needs selling off

When it comes to state-owned property with a public safety connection in northwest Louisiana, the theme best suiting taxpayers needs would be to get rid of it.

For one agency, it’s a matter of cutting losses while you can. The Municipal Police Employees Retirement System has become notorious in the last decade for its obviously foolish investments, the outstanding examples being Bossier Parish’s Olde Oaks and Stonebridge (in bankruptcy when purchased) golf courses, and their surrounding real estate, and $24 million in foreclosed lots in Texas. Concerning the courses, the latest audit shows, with improvements, they are worth about one-fifth of what was paid, for a loss for all of these of about $48 million (and financial shenanigans concerning the courses led to the former executive director going to prison).

Finally, the MPERS board, composed of active and retired sworn officers, recently has decided to try to sell the courses after years of rejecting the idea. Unfortunately, this is closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out and since taken a trip around the world, during which the consequences of it poor decision-making have become accelerated. From funded status of about 85 percent just a few years ago, it has dropped alarming so that the latest audit has it under 60 percent. As a result, last fiscal year taxpayers found they were footing a 31 percent of salary contribution rate, over 20 percent higher than it should be at the level that would match employee contributions were it close to being fully funded.

The courses and lots together continue to lose together over two million dollars a year, and besides this drain what little in the way of assets that remain could be put to better use through a sale. With an unfunded accrued liability now approaching $1 billion, or about $161,000 for every single active member presently, this sale can’t happen a moment too soon.

On a more positive note, Caddo Parish finds itself with the possibility of having the property that served as the Forscht-Wade Correctional Center until last year reentering the balance sheet. The parish donated the land, beginning in 1977, thinking it could get it back if the state stopped that use, after two years. While that didn’t exactly turn out to be the case, the state has indicated it well may return the property to the parish by the middle of 2014, improvements and all.

While next to the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park, it might be difficult to integrate what was a fully functioning prison into perhaps the polar opposite. And its best use now for the parish doesn’t seem to be what it was designed for, as the Caddo Correctional Center currently is operating below capacity. Nor does that appear to be likely to change any time soon, as demographic trends and changes in state corrections policy, such as that announced recently signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal to move to reduce incarceration rates of nonviolent drug offenders, argue that Caddo should not expect a significantly increased usage in the future.

Credit for this declining inmate count goes to the CCC’s operator and chief parish law enforcement officer Sheriff Steve Prator and local judicial authorities for implementing policies creating a more efficient criminal justice system. It seems unlikely these would be reversed that have created operating at only about 70 percent of the facility’s peak usage five years ago.

While various proposals have been floated about for its use if the state does return the property, such as a zoo, if nothing economical comes about – the state estimated maintenance costs of between $59,000-$79,000 a year – the state needs to market it first and foremost as a prison that either it will sell to a private provider or lease to such an operator. It’s relatively new and complete, and housing out-of-state prisoners could recapture many of the jobs lost when the state pulled out. Having the parish try to use the land for its own purposes in any way will cost plenty to clear it and likely maintenance costs will far exceed any revenues from any other activity except as a prison.

If there doesn’t seem to be a market for a private prison there, then the parish ought to market the land, 100 acres, as is to any entity that commits to some kind of development that would bring property and sales tax revenues to the parish – not on some industrial park without credible tenants or other undefined use, but one with certain and obvious benefits. Holding onto it idly for an extended period, unless no bids are sufficient enough to make a sale or lease cost-effective, or committing it to some low value enterprise (and its neighboring park already is large enough without it) should not be an option.

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