What We’re Saying: Diverting Tax Dollars to Focus Infrastructure Is a Good Move for the City

Flooding at St. Bernard Avenue and Claiborne around Circle Food Store after Aug. 5, 2017 rainstorm.
It is a really good thing that summers are a historically slow period for tourism in New Orleans. That probably means there weren’t a whole lot of visitors traversing our wonderful city on July 22, 2017, when a lingering storm dumped nearly 5 inches of rain, flooding city streets. If we were lucky, even fewer tourists were in town two weeks later on Aug. 5, 2017, when more than nine inches of rain fell over a short period of time in Mid-City, while other parts of New Orleans saw anywhere from three to five inches of rain.

Who doesn’t remember Aug. 5, 2017? A state of emergency was declared. Streets, cars, businesses and homes were inundated with water. The city’s pump system had failed. There were some scenes that could only be rivaled by memories of Hurricane Katrina.
Thank God for slow summer months so that not too many of our welcomed visitors—the ones that come to New Orleans from near and far for its unique culture, unparalleled revelry, first-rate cuisine and transformative music—were here to witness our city brought to a near standstill by a summer rain storm. It would not have been a good look.

And let’s face it. No one can second line down a flooded street—not even in New Orleans. And while all roads in the city may very well lead to the Superdome, who’s going to travel them when they are under four or five feet of water?

After that August 2017 flood, the city’s Sewerage & Water Board was catapulted into necessary upheaval. The agency now has a new leader and millions of dollars in emergency repairs have been made since those storms and the ensuing flooding rocked the city—giving it a much needed wake-up call with respect to the state of its infrastructure. But the reality is that this should have never happened. Our city’s drainage system should have never slipped into such a deplorable state that a bad rainstorm caused damage eerily similarly to that of a category 3 hurricane and broken levees.

No doubt, the recently implemented changes at S&WB were a necessary step in addressing the challenges we face. But the approach must be multi-faceted. Emergency repairs, along with changes in leadership and policies are only part of the solution. The ability to allocate the resources needed to address longstanding problems is paramount.

That’s why we are in favor of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plans to use some of the tax revenue that has typically gone to tourism and sports industries in New Orleans to address much-needed drainage and infrastructure issues that still persist.

Opposition in Expected

The Mayor recently shared her idea at the meeting of a local women’s organization. Not all of the details have been worked out. For instance, while the Mayor isn’t proposing redirecting all of the funds allocated annually to the Ernest N. Morial Exhibition Hall Authority; the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, which oversees the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and other sports facilities; the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation; and New Orleans and Co., formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau, from city tax revenue, just how much she would like to see diverted to infrastructure projects remains unclear. Would the change be a permanent one or a temporary measure with a sunset clause designed to reach specific goals?

All of those details must be ironed out. But this conversation is one worth having. And we applaud the Mayor for having the courage to broach the subject. Let’s tell the truth. More than one year has passed since last summer’s storms and flooding. Millions have been poured into improving the city’s water pumping and drainage system; and SW&B has been under scrutiny like never before. But the system is old and needs a lot of attention. If on today, the forecast called for torrential rain, New Orleanians would go into a fury of activity as they rush to move their cars to higher ground, secure their property or meticulously travel streets swamped with rainwater to escape a probable deluge.

So when the Mayor suggests using money historically given to the tourism, sports and event industries to ramp up our efforts to address our failing infrastructure, we can’t help but be open to the conversation.

We don’t expect this to be an easy ask. Questions of money never are. To be sure, Mayor Cantrell will have her work cut out. The plan requires legislative approval. There has already been one state legislator who has made it clear, according to media reports, that he is not to keen on the idea. A longtime lawmaker who wields a lot of power in Baton Rouge, State Rep. John Alario, who hails from Westwego, a quaint little city located in neighboring Jefferson Parish, says he is sympathetic to the challenges our mayor and city faces. With all due respect, Rep. Alario, we will trade a pound of your sympathy for just a smidgen of cooperation.

And we expect the tourism industry to offer some level of resistance. They would be right to proceed cautiously and knee-jerk defense mechanisms would be in order. We would not be surprised by outright opposition, at least at first, as self-preservation is an innate instinct. But we’re urging everyone to get on board and hammer out a plan that all parties can live with it for the good of all of New Orleans.

Taking Care of Home

Some of the agencies that would be asked to have some of their revenue diverted to infrastructure are valuable organizations. Some are even entities that we like and consider friends, even partners. Our contention is not that these agencies do not deserve or need the revenue. What we contend is that the people of New Orleans just happen to need it more right now.

We hope that tourism leaders and related businesses will see the big picture. Yes, New Orleans is a great city—one that attracts millions of visitors annually. It’s a show city, for sure. But how about we really make it a city worth showing? The best way to tackle that task is to give a little more attention to the people who are here 365 days a year and the neighborhoods they call home. We must ensure that every nook and cranny of our city, every aspect of its operation is a jewel in its crown. Ask anyone in the tourism business what makes New Orleans so special, so unique, so unlike any other place in the world, and before you could finish the question, they would quickly say that it’s the people. Behind the music, the art, the food, the culture, the warmth and friendliness that are the trademarks of New Orleans are its people. The folk who call this place home are the same folk who make it a tourist magnet.

Well, the people of New Orleans shouldn’t have to be afraid that their homes, cars or businesses will get severely damaged every time there is rainstorm brewing. Traveling down a neighborhood street—almost anywhere outside of the CBD—shouldn’t feel like the bumpy climb of a steep roller coaster just before it nose-dives.

Our city has a 33 –year-old convention center that was completely renovated only 12 years ago. Plans for redevelopment around it are underway. The Louisiana Superdome, which is barely 43-years-old, just underwent a massive post-Katrina redevelopment with plans for future renovation already afoot. Meanwhile our pumping and drainage system is almost 100 years ago. Pieces and parts have been replaced and repaired over the years. But the system itself is archaic and needs to be overhauled. Is it such a bad idea to look at our condition as a city and reprioritize just a bit? In fact, isn’t it time we do so?

The way that our city looks—the whole city, not just the center of town—is important to tourism and a reflection of our brand. The way that our city operates—the whole city, not just the tourism industry—is a reflection of what we value. The way that our city treats its people—all of its people, those who visit New Orleans for its culture and especially those who are the natural sources of that culture—is reflection of who we really are.

If you stop and think about it, it’s a pretty gloomy statement about our city and its priorities to have lavish sports and event facilities or a modern convention center while the people who work at them every day have might have to swim home to Mid-City, Gentilly, the Ninth Ward or Carrollton any time it rains too long, too hard or too fast.

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