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A look at the 2014 Mayoral candidates, in their own words. Part II

27th January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Part II

As the Mayor’s race rushes to its conclusion, incumbent Mitch Landrieu faces off against former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris and NAACP President Danatus King in a multi-varied contest, where race and class and expectations have dominated the headlines. To get past the rhetoric, The Editorial Board asked each candidate a series of questions on the issues.

1. Despite advances, nearly a fifth of the homes in New Orleans are abandoned properties or in extreme dilapidated condition. Current constitutional changes in the state constitution post-New London make using eminent domain as a method to force landowners to fix their property difficult. What successes have you had in this area, what is your answer to fixing the remaining vacant housing problem, and is it accomplishable in the next four years?

Michael Bagneris: Education, housing, blight elimination and violence reduction are all issues that affect environmental quality, specifically they weigh heavily on the psychological and economic health of an area. They are critical quality-of-life issues that in many instances are outcome determinative of the success of not only neighborhoods — but its inhabitants as well. In the area of blight eradication, we can benefit from another great push of civic involvement. Much of what has been accomplished is the result of efforts and resources garnered by neighborhood organizations, individual property owners and investors. The recovery progress would not be apparent without the involvement and collaboration of these sectors.

The policy component that has been lacking is a mechanism to assist property owners in the liquidation of unwanted problem properties. It would take the form of an Amnesty Program which allowed owners to express formal interest within a stated period. The property would then move toward sale. This would serve to expedite transfer of problem properties. The incentive to the property owner is the ability to realize a profit. There is no incentive to the owner to divest when the City stands ready to collect $15,000 for doing nothing. In most instances there has been no blight or nuisance abatement.

There are a multitude of issues preventing the transfer of these properties. Some of the FEMA funds should be redirected to assist with technical help. Some of the properties have defunct mortgage companies, properties worth less than debt and liens, etc. This would also avoid the inevitable title problems resulting from lien foreclosures and demolitions by having the owner present and willing to transfer upon clearance. The psychological health benefit is that the City cares and doesn’t lump everyone with problem properties into a group of negligent owners who should be divested because it has now been eight years since Hurricane Katrina. There are those property owners who are recalcitrant and negligent. Those should be dealt with accordingly. How­ever, we can make a substantial push toward blight elimination now with some creativity and finesse.

Government action has had some impact from the standpoint of mapping and identifying problem areas and maybe even moving some owners off center. Indeed, most of the information acted upon by the government has been the result of calls from citizenry reporting problem properties on the blocks. The recovery has been citizen driven.

The strategy of the government has been to expedite the taking of properties and return them to commerce. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the phrase “Quick Take” was coined and put forward as though the constitutional requirements of due process had been relaxed due to exigencies created by the disaster. Those familiar with the issues surrounding blight pre-Katrina knew well that there would be no quick fix to returning these properties to commerce without the presence and/or willingness of the owners.

All you have to do is recall the days of NORA and their expropriation efforts. It took years for them sometime to secure a Judgment of Expropriation on a given property and those judgments were often successfully challenged on constitutional grounds. Given the amount of resources invested in the expropriation program – its success was marginal at best. And though the arrival of a new sheriff in town was lauded – the constitution although fluid remained constant. There is no easy solution. It requires balancing of competing interest; the interest of government to regulate the code for the health, safety and welfare of its residents and to maintain its tax rolls juxtaposed with the interest of property owners to be secure in their ownership.

Danatus King: The City can start a construction contracting training program that trains our unemployed citizens in housing repairs and renovation. The training can be accomplished working on the abandoned properties in our City. The costs associated with the renovations can be assessed to the owners of the properties. If the assessment is not paid, the property could be sold.

Mitch Landrieu: When we took office, the recovery was stalled. To get the City’s recovery back on track in the first months in office, we identified priority projects in every neighborhood and got them off the ground. We secured a billion new dollars from FEMA for new streets and community projects and launched the $52 million Soft-Second Mortgage Program and so far, over 500 first time homebuyers have purchased homes through this program. Plus, in 2010, we began to execute an aggressive blight reduction strategy that has reduced overall blight by more than 10,000 properties.

When we came into office, we had the worst blight problem in the country and no resources or strategy to fix it. Now, we are tearing down or fixing up blight faster here than anywhere else in America and have met our goal of reducing blight by 10,000 properties. We developed a strategy that included tough enforcement, increased use of lien foreclosures and Sheriff Sales. We created BlightStat to track our progress. We also created the BlightStatus website so now everyone has access to the City’s blight database. Just type in an address and you can get info about a specific house and track what happens to it.

But, we need to keep it up and expand our efforts. So the 2014 budget invests nearly half a million dollars for new blight inspectors to work closely with neighborhoods and new title research staff so we can fight blight even better. Plus, we will launch new fight the blight strategies such as hiring young people to clear overgrown lots and supporting a change in law to allow neighbors who cut grass on blight to “Mow to Own” the blight they maintain.

2. One element of the new master plan is to eliminate the overpass over N. Claiborne cutting the Tremé and St. Roch neighborhoods in Half. What are your thoughts on ending the I-10 route behind the French Quarter? In you support it, what modifications do you advocate to the off-ramps. If you oppose, how will this impact the Port of New Orleans?

Michael Bagneris: This is one of those instances where notice, collaboration and communication with the District Councilmember, the interested stakeholders, developers and community members is key to formulating any plans for the redevelopment of this historic corridor. There have been a number of studies and proposals contemplate various redevelopment options, including removal of the entire overpass to removal of select on/off ramps. The feasibility, cost and traffic impacts would have to be weighed before any final decisions could be made about the best options for this community.

Danatus King: If the I-10 overpass is eliminated, that will cause a tremendous amount of traffic to flow down Claiborne. The resultant traffic congestion could be more detrimental to the neighborhoods than the I-10.

Mitch Landrieu: Before the construction of the I-10/ Claiborne Expressway, the oak-lined Claib­orne Avenue was at the heart of thriving African-American neighborhoods and businesses. Its construction had devastating effects on the community.

That’s why we’ve worked with the community to secure federal and philanthropic dollars to fund a feasibility study on this very issue. The study considers community development strategies along with traffic implications for commuters and the Port of New Orleans. We have held numerous community meetings to listen to what the community wants and to explore options moving forward.

Ideas under consideration include deconstructing the overpass and replacing it with a ground level thoroughfare; or, keeping the overpass, but removing some of the off and on ramps. Other proposals envision retail or a streetcar line in the currently area under the overpass. However, since I-10 is a federal highway, these alternatives will have to be further reviewed by the federal government, which will also include further outreach to neighborhoods, businesses, and the Port before any determination is made.

We are committed in the meantime to move forward on $1.2 billion of public and private investments coming on line in the Treme/ Iberville neighborhood – the new street car line, the new UMC Medical Center and new housing in Lafitte, to name a few of the big projects in that area. Overall, the goal is to create a corridor of healthy neighborhoods along Claiborne where culture can flourish and families are safe with access to jobs, schools, heath care and good housing.

3. Do you support the BGR’s proposals for Contracting Reform? (The current Jefferson proposals were presented in Orleans Parish a decade ago, with no action taken.) If so or if not, why?

Michael Bagneris: This question actually raises the fundamental issue, and tension, in setting policy concerning government procurement, i.e., consistency, transparency, and accountability. Regardless of whether we assign responsibility for the contracting process – from solicitation to evaluation, selection and the eventual signing of the contract – to the executive branch, and then require the City Council to establish a competitive, transparent contracting process for the executive branch to follow, or set all policy and procedure within the City Charter, the fundamental issues remain. In my administration, we will not dictate to or fight with the City Council concerning procurement policy and procedure and, frankly, will allow the electorate to decide the level of detail they want our detail-laden City Charter to bear concerning contracting. Regardless of the outcome, it is the Executive Branch that is responsible for procurement, and I will assure our New Orleans residents that a Bagneris administration will follow national standards and best practices for accountable contracting.

Danatus King: No because the proposed changes would put the contracting authority into the hands of individuals that are not directly accountable to the public.

Mitch Landrieu: One of the first things I did after entering office was completely reform the City’s contracting process. With the stroke of a pen, we leveled the playing field. Now contracts are awarded based on what you know, not who you know.

Now, we also have a fully staffed office of Supplier Diversity. It used to be just one person, but now we have an entire staff of 6 people focusing on DBE enforcement and compliance. We increased the number of certified DBEs eligible for City work by more than 70 percent and in the last three years $100 million in contracts have been awarded to DBEs. We also instituted a rigorous STAT program to track contracts and every month we review our work in a public meeting.

In the future we will continue to award contracts based on what you know, not who you know and will support a charter change that institutionalizes contracting reforms outlined in my sweeping executive orders.

4. Would you support a state law requiring a public vote before milliages could be rolled forward after being rolled back? If not, why? Do you promise to support keeping milliages rolled back on city property taxes?

Michael Bagneris: Yes, I support accountability to the people before millages could be rolled forward. The public has a voice via their representatives on the City Council. I promise to focus on eliminating wasteful spending and managing the budget to avoid increased taxes or fees. If we do have a need for additional revenues, I would seek first to have those that benefit from city services, but don’t live here, pay more — whether through an increase in the hotel/motel tax or a possible occupational license fee on those over a certain income who work in our city, but live elsewhere.

Danatus King: Yes.

Mitch Landrieu: We’ve made a lot of tough decisions to balance the City’s budget and get our city moving in the right direction. For the first time in a long time, we are on solid financial footing. But big challenges loom with federal consent decrees & unfunded pension obligations.

On the issue of millages, we follow the law as it relates to roll forwards and roll backs. And we have balanced the budget and for each year, 2011, 2012 and 2013, cut overall annual spending from 2009 levels by $40 million.

The bottom line is that we will continue to find creative solutions to our City’s long-term needs. We’ve secured a billion new dollars from FEMA for new streets and community projects. Plus, we’ve raised more than $100 million from private & philanthropic organizations. In the next four years, we will continue to cut and reorganize government to improve efficiency and balance the budget and use the revenue we have to make progress on the City’s top priorities.

5. Where do you stand on the proposal to turn Big Charity into the new City Hall. What are your thoughts on the CDC judges’ effort for a separate courthouse complex?

Michael Bagneris: When a city has many unmet needs, setting priorities is very important. When we have basic city services like streets that are in horrible condition, street lights that still don’t work, street signs that have not been replaced in eight years, and crime that is spiraling out of control, we can’t afford to spend our limited funds on a new City Hall complex. I think that we should focus on repairing the existing building, and evaluating other adaptive reuses of the Charity building that will include space for mental health services and medical research facilities. As for the new Courthouse, the judges at Civil District Court have their own funds to build a new courthouse, and they don’t require any funding from the city.

Danatus King: The costs might exceed the costs to renovate the existing structure. I support the judge’s efforts.

Mitch Landrieu: We need a new Civil Court and City Hall. We have analyzed several different options and housing them at Charity makes the most sense for taxpayers. In addition, Charity Hospital is one of the biggest pieces of blight in the city, sitting right in the heart of downtown New Orleans. Putting that piece of state-owned historic property back into commerce would transform the landscape. Plus, establishing the Civil Court and City Hall at Charity would be convenient for residents and will help New Orleans get tens of millions more in recovery money and tax credits that would otherwise be unavailable.

6. What new efforts would you undertake to accelerate recovery citywide?

Michael Bagneris: I would work to implement policies that incentivize private citizens to assist with blight remediation (i.e., a program that provides blighted properties and low-interest loans to police officers, firefighters, city workers and teachers). I would also prioritize public safety, rebuilding our police department, and the provision of basic city services over building grand new structures.

Danatus King: Tax credits for those employers that locate in economically depressed areas and hire residents from economically depressed areas.

Mitch Landrieu: When we took office in 2010 the recovery was stalled. To get the city’s recovery back on track in the first months in office, together we identified priority projects in every neighborhood and got them off the ground. In the last three and a half years, we met with FEMA over 600 times to review over 1660 FEMA Project Worksheets concerning projects across the city. The result: We secured a billion new dollars from FEMA for new streets and community projects. Plus, we have launched the $52 million Soft-Second Mortgage Program, and so far, over 500 first-time homebuyers have purchased homes through this program. We fought to make sure that primary care clinics born after Katrina stay open, and in 2010 we began to execute an aggressive blight reduction strategy that has reduced overall blight by more than 10,000 properties.

Indeed, we’re in the midst of an over $1 billion building blitz and since taking office we have invested over $250 million for streets. In all, we’ve completed over 100 miles of road repairs. Over the next four years, the City will launch an aggressive plan to invest over $400 million to repair interior streets. Our neighborhoods are coming back, but we need to ensure the recovery reaches every part of the City so no one is left behind. To further rebuild our city, together we will:

• Keep the recovery going – Continue the $1 billion-plus building blitz across the city with more investments in streets, parks, playgrounds, libraries and police and fire stations.

• Replace & Repair Streetlights with Energy Efficient Technology – Continue to keep street light outages at lowest levels since Katrina by replacing another 12,000 streetlights in 2014. Enact the Energy Smart plan and create a sustainable funding source to fix every streetlight and maintain the overall system using energy efficient technology.

• Launch New Blight Strategies — Continue to tear down or fix up blight faster here than anywhere else in the country. Support a change in law to enable neighbors who cut grass on blight to “Mow to Own” the blight they maintain. Create jobs clearing overgrown lots.

• Expand Transportation Options — Work with RTA to expand a new streetcar line down Rampart Street. Advocate for more funding for more streetcar lines throughout the City. Continue the fight to save the ferry and work with RTA and the State to continue expanded ferry service. Support RTA efforts to expand bus services and reduce wait times.

• Turbo-Charge the River —Open Crescent Park and redevelop the World Trade Center.

• Reopen Charity Hospital as Civic Center- Replace the broke down buildings that currently hold Civil Court and City Hall and consolidate into what would be a historic reuse of one of the most storied buildings in New Orleans. Eliminate the largest piece of blight that lies in the heart of downtown New Orleans.

• Bring Transformational Eco­no­mic Development Projects to New Orleans East – Build on the progress made attracting new jobs to Michoud and the rebuilding of Methodist Hospital to catalyze growth and bring more jobs and retail o the East, with a special focus on the redevelopment of Lake Forest Plaza and the old Six Flags.

7. What can be done to accelerate retail development on major corridors like Canal Street, Claiborne Ave, or elsewhere?

Michael Bagneris: We need to have incentives that are coordinated with each District Councilmember so that we can ensure that the priorities set are consistent with the needs of the neighborhoods.

Danatus King: Tax credits.

Mitch Landrieu: When we came into office, our goal was to create jobs and promote economic development. In three and a half years, we have vigorously pushed to attract major retailers, business startups and new private investments.

We helped create the New Orleans Business Alliance, the first ever public-private partnership for economic development and under our leadership; the NOLA Business Alliance unveiled ProsperityNOLA, a five-year plan to drive economic growth in five targeted sectors. Now there is a retail and restaurant building boom. 80 new projects are getting off the ground — a new Mid-City Market on Carrollton, Costco at the end of Washington Avenue, Algiers Plaza on General De Gaulle Drive. Just to name a few.

Now we are moving forward with new retail developments including Magnolia Marketplace on Claiborne, the New Era cap store on Canal, Walmart in Gentilly, Walmart in New Orleans East, Wholefoods on Broad Street, the Outlets at Riverwalk, and Magnolia Marketplace in Central City, among others. We will continue to work aggressively with the NOLA Business Alliance to attract new retail across the city.

8. What should be done with the former Jazzland property in New Orleans East now that the potential for a outlet mall has fallen through?

Michael Bagneris: We should work with the neighborhood organizations and the District Councilmember to evaluate all options. One option that is possible is an urban manufacturing use that would provide good-paying jobs for the residents of our City.

Danatus King: Because the infrastructure, i.e., interstate access, drainage, etc., is already in place, there are many options. Another developer for an outlet mall could be located. A business park or other development is possible.

Mitch Landrieu: We have worked hard to bring transformational economic development projects to New Orleans East. The goal is to build on the progress made attracting new retail like Walmart, Big Lots, CVS and more. We need to build on the progress made bringing new jobs to Michoud and the rebuilding of Methodist Hospital to catalyze growth and bring more jobs and retail in the East, with a special focus on the redevelopment of Lake Forest Plaza and the old Jazzland. The Jazzland site is an asset for economic development and we are committed to working with the community to find a new use and put it back in commerce.

9. Sewerage and Water Fees will rise by an estimated 200% in the next two decades to pay for upgrades mandated under the Federal consent decree. Do you oppose a state law, backed by a Council ordinance, that would mandate those extra fees would be repealed automatically when the repairs/upgrades are paid for and completed?

Michael Bagneris: Yes. I don’t think that additional fees should be imposed after the contemplated repairs have been made. Just like I favored eliminating the tolls on the Crescent City Connection once the required costs had been paid.

Danatus King: Yes. The public should have input as to whether extra fees should continue.

Mitch Landrieu: No, I do not appose this proposal. Overall, the Sewerage and Water system is in dire shape and threatens our public health and safety. The city is bleeding over 40 percent of our treated water through cracks in underground pipes. The S&WB power plant has suffered multiple catastrophic failures since Hurricane Katrina, and since 1998, the sewerage system has been under federal consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2009, the S&WB created a financial plan based on a rate increase. To make it happen we insisted that the S&WB meet tough benchmarks — better customer service, governance reform, and a job-training program — so the people of New Orleans could be prepared for the new jobs the rebuilding effort will create. After all, the rate increase will generate at least $583 million, which will help fund a large portion of the S&WB $3.3 billion infrastructure improvement program. This is one of the largest infrastructure projects that the City of New Orleans has ever seen, and it is projected to produce over 25,000 construction and nearly 200 permanent jobs.

10. The Criminal Justice Federal Consent Decrees, for jail and NOPD, threaten to remove so much money from the Criminal Justice Budget that there is no special event policing monies left. IE, the Consent Decrees threaten to defund Mardi Gras parade safety, in particular. What can be done to lessen their impact, and in particular, should Orleans Parish seek criminal justice aid from the suburban parishes.

Michael Bagneris: I don’t agree with the premise of this question, which is that by funding a constitutionally compliant police department and parish prison, we will necessarily deplete funding from the city’s criminal justice budget. This is a myth of the Landrieu administration — a power play attempted against the federal judges in order to rescind agreement to comply with the terms and conditions of both decrees. I have worked under administrations that understood budgeting and prioritization. My administration will insure there is no depletion in special event policing monies in our city budget, while simultaneously complying with these federal court orders.

Danatus King: The administration must include enough funds n the budget for public safety, even for special events. The mayor must look to obtaining funding to pay for the consent decrees without reducing the criminal justice budget. All sources of grants and other funding must be explored.

Mitch Landrieu: We’ve made a lot of tough decisions to balance the city’s budget and get our city moving in the right direction. For the first time in a long time, we are on solid financial footing. But big challenges loom with federal consent decrees & unfunded pension obligations.

We’ll continue to find creative solutions to our city’s long-term needs. We’ve secured a billion new dollars from FEMA for new streets and community projects. Plus, we’ve raised more than $100 million from private & philanthropic organizations. Fur­ther­more, we requested that the Department of Justice provide support to help implement the consent decree. But federal and state funding for public safety is going down, not up and we are not expecting that to change. That’s why we are not waiting for anything or anyone. We are moving forward to completely reform the NOPD. In the next four years, we will continue to cut and reorganize government to improve efficiency and balance the budget to fund City services.

11. Specifically, should Orleans be open to accepting police aid from Jefferson Parish in exchange for not having parades in Orleans the weekend of Jefferson Family Gras, an idea floated by several Jeff Parish Councilmen.

Michael Bagneris: No. We should not interfere with our long standing Mardi Gras traditions. We should seek assistance from the State Police to supplement our depleted police ranks.

Danatus King: The money saved from the Jefferson Parish Police aid might not equal the amount or revenue lost by not having the parades in Orleans.

Mitch Landrieu: Orleans Parish has a rich and long history of parading carnival traditions. The beauty of these traditions, many of which are well over 100 years old, is that they are events that parade goers and participants can plan on year after year. Residents of both parishes participate in these parades annually. There are plenty of festivities for everyone to enjoy without sacrificing one for the other. We have enjoyed regional cooperation whenever there are large events in Orleans and the surrounding parishes and we see no reason that would not continue.

12. What should happen to the ArtWorks building on Howard Ave?

Michael Bagneris: I support the proposal by the advisory board of the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum, which wants to use the building “to report on the civil rights story for all people in Louisiana.” The museum would tell the story through permanent and traveling exhibits and serve as a place for lectures. Further, the ArtWorks building, refurbished as the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum would have retail space to generate income. The museum was created by a unanimous vote of the state Legislature in 2004 and is supposed to be housed in New Orleans; it has $1.5 million in state funds.

Danatus King: Using the ArtWorks building for a Civil Rights museum would be bad. Such a museum should be located in an area that has a connection with Civil Rights. For example, the Central City area where the SCLC was born. Locating the museum in such an area would spur economic development in that area. Because of its location, the ArtWorks building should be used for art related development.

Mitch Landrieu: The City does not own the ArtsWorks building, but is still paying off a significant federal loan that was used for its construction. We want to reduce this burden on the taxpayer, move that currently unoccupied building back into commerce, and create jobs. Whatever goes into the ArtWorks building it should benefit the public, be related to arts and culture, and return funds to the city.

18. Tell us a personal story about yourself that explains who you are, that few know.

Michael Bagneris: I am the product of New Orleans and the richness of this cosmopolitan city with its great diversity. I was raised in the Desire housing projects of the 9th Ward, the son of a janitor and cafeteria worker. Although I graduated with honors from St. Augustine High School, Yale University and Tulane Law School, I vowed never to forget where I came from, not the place, but rather the conditions for working families trying to make a living wage. Now after proudly serving this city as a jurist for 20 years __ listening to, understanding and responding to the needs of this incredible community — I offer myself in service as Mayor, ready to give back, ready to motivate and ready to revive the drive!

Danatus King: Please see my campaign web site www.dkingformayor.com.

Mitch Landrieu: In December 2011, I received an emergency call about a shooting in BW Cooper. Keira Holmes had been shot and killed, just a few days before her second birthday. Standing at the candlelight vigil held in her honor, I felt the searing pain of her family, her friends, and her neighbors. Standing with her mother and listening to each person share their pain, I resolved once again that I would spend every day working to end the senseless loss of life on the streets of New Orleans. No mother should feel that pain. I’m putting everything I’ve got into the fight to make our city safe.

This article originally published in the January 27, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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