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Council capitulates to mayor yet one more time

Council capitulates to mayor yet one more time
by Mark Singletary
CityBusiness, February 8, 2009

It always makes me feel good when BGR gets my back.

I’ve been working all week on this piece — an analysis of New Orleans’ economic development tax funds and how badly the city is messing up by spending money designated for economic development on trash pickup in the French Quarter.

“No, no, no,” I thought when I first heard the news that the New Orleans City Council and Mayor C. Ray Nagin had crafted a memorandum of understanding to use certain pre-Katrina economic development funds to empty the trash cans from French Quarter merchants and apartment buildings. The agreement fills the breach in a $2.5 million shortfall in the trash collecting budget.

That news itself is odd, because we charge residents and building owners to have their garbage collected and taken away. The truth is the trash pickup fee has to be supported by other city funds as the service charges that residents pay never cover the entire charge.

Enter the French Quarter turmoil of 2009. Commercial building owners and apartment complexes with more than four units are required to get their own garbage deals. That means that when SDT Waste and Debris Services picks up trash and charges the city a fee for the extra garbage, SDT wants to be paid. The shortfall works out to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 million. There you go.

But the solution offered by the mayor and council stinks, and I’m glad the Bureau of Governmental Research doesn’t like how EDF money has been distributed in the past either.

Here are the recommendations on spending EDF money from BGR’s latest report:

• Determine a clear strategic focus.

• Focus on business development.

• Avoid excessively risky investments.

• Avoid grants that confer an unfair competitive advantage.

• Give preference to businesses that invest the grant money in public infrastructure.

• Give preference to businesses that expand the city’s economic base.

• Require applicants to create a minimum number of new jobs.

• Set caps on individual awards.

• Encourage all applicants to maximize private investment.

• Link awards to strategy. Each funded project should advance the objectives and goals of the five-year master plan for EDF expenditures.

• Create a binding system for scoring and ranking applicants.

To say the execution of a plan for this fund has been a little fuzzy is an understatement at its best and chicanery at the other end. I tend to think chicanery always wins against fuzzy.

The tax proceeds have been doled out like blessings to individual businesses and organizations, contrary to the intent of the voter referendum that blessed this initiative into law.

BGR condemns that history and suggests the city abandon the practice and redirect the money to economic development functions and initiatives that benefit multiple businesses, based on recommendations from independent thinkers.

But this year, right now, right here, the mayor and City Council want to spend this money, these designated funds for economic development that were collected before Hurricane Katrina, to pay for ongoing, routine expenses.

The council agreed to this solution because they didn’t want a fight with the mayor.

I talked with the council president and vice president about this matter. I couldn’t really get either one to embrace the agreement as anything except a settlement with the mayor. The agreement should be called “A Memo of Another Capitulation.”

Council President Jackie Clarkson told me tax fund diversion for trash pickup was “legitimate” but certainly not her first choice. She said there is enough room in the current city budget to slice and dice this $2.5 million into existence without using the EDF money.

Council Vice President Arnold Fielkow said he supports using the EDF tax money because he didn’t want to have to sue the mayor to get his cooperation and support.

I think I’d like to see how a lawsuit like that might play out.

Getting Nagin before a lawyer and court reporter asking questions about process, rules, laws, procedure and his responsibility thereto might make great theater and shed some light on the goings on in our city hall.

Clarkson’s probably right, too, about finding the money. In fact, she’s after something she calls a “performance audit” that would look at every city department and make certain employees are spending at least a little time each day doing what they’re supposed to do.

The money for next year’s budget, Clarkson said, would be based on the auditor’s report. She said that’s how it worked when she was in business for herself and that’s how it ought to work now.

Sounds like a plan, ma’am. Go get ’em.•

Publisher Mark Singletary can be reached by at 293-9214 or by e-mail at mark.singletary@nopg.com.

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