When voters consolidated several levee boards in southeast Louisiana in 2006, it was widely understood that lawmakers would have to do some clean-up work this year. After nearly eight decades of managing more than 125 miles of levees and flood walls, more than 200 floodgates and gauges, plus an airport, two marinas and a gaggle of other nonflood assets, the Orleans Levee Board left a complex legacy of interconnected functions that has proved extremely difficult to untangle. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina further complicates matters. In the long run, southeast Louisiana will be better off as a result of the citizen-led efforts to consolidate the levee boards. Meanwhile, lawmakers have to figure out what to do with the nonflood assets and functions of the Orleans Levee District.
By way of background, it's important to note that while the Orleans Levee Board was disbanded as a result of the consolidation law, the Orleans Levee District remains intact. That's an important distinction: the board was made up of political appointees, whereas the district is a political subdivision of the state. The district remains because it is a tax-recipient body that must continue to pay off bonds for local levees and one of the marinas, all of which it still owns. The district is now managed by the two newly created regional flood authorities -- the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East Bank and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West Bank. The West Bank authority includes Algiers.
Several lawmakers have filed bills to address various issues related to the levee board consolidations.
• Sen. Derrick Shepherd of New Orleans has filed SB 318, which would create the Greater New Orleans Economic Development Authority and empower it to manage the nonflood assets. Shepherd's bill does a good job of delineating the nonflood assets, but creating a new board looks like a step backward at this point. We just got rid of the levee boards. We don't need another politically appointed board.
• Rep. Jim Tucker of Algiers has filed several measures to direct Algiers property tax revenues (which formerly went to the Orleans Levee District) to West Bank flood projects exclusively. On its face, this seems fair. But the bill ignores the fact that Algiers, as part of the Orleans Levee District, benefited from levee district flood protection projects -- many of which are still being paid for by property tax revenues. It thus seems equally fair that Algiers should first pay its proportionate share of the debts incurred to benefit Algiers residents and businesses. Any excess revenues should then go toward West Bank flood protection projects in Algiers.
• Sens. Ed Murray and Ann Duplessis, along with Rep. Karen Carter, all of New Orleans, have filed bills to address various post-consolidation issues. Their bills admittedly are somewhat generic in nature because they were filed as "place holders" that can be amended when local legislators agree on a definitive course of action. Discussions are ongoing, and that's encouraging.
In addition to all of this, Mayor Ray Nagin has let it be known that he wants all the nonflood assets -- all of which are state-owned and in a state of utter disrepair -- to be transferred to the city. The mayor's theory is that public assets located in the city ought to be owned and managed by City Hall. We would caution hizzoner not to carry that argument too far, lest he forget that Armstrong International Airport, which is city-owned and a source of considerable patronage, is located in the City of Kenner. Is Nagin ready to give his airport to Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz? We suspect not.
Also by way of background, it's important for lawmakers and Nagin to know that the Orleans Levee District's nonflood assets were not paid for by local taxpayers. The green space along Lakeshore Drive was financed by the creation and sale of residential lots in then-new lakefront neighborhoods in the 1930s and '40s in the course of building the Lake Pontchartrain seawall and reclaiming land north of Robert E. Lee Boulevard. The two marinas were financed by revenue bonds based on slip rentals, and Lakefront Airport was built largely with federal money. Besides, the city is broke right now, whereas the state has a $3-billion-plus surplus. Given the broken state in which all those assets sit right now, the state is best suited to get them repaired.
So what should lawmakers do with the levee district's nonflood assets?
Current law places nonflood assets under the management of the Division of Administration, which has already taken steps to maintain green space and pick up trash. More than 100 individual "project worksheets," or PWs, are in place with FEMA to restore various nonflood assets to pre-Katrina condition. Because recovery will take years, we urge lawmakers to seek a "global" resolution to all issues relating to levee board consolidation. This includes separating and restoring nonflood assets, putting local taxes toward local projects (after proportionate debt payments), and maintaining green space, public safety and other nonflood functions. Because it will take years -- and many millions of dollars -- to repair the district's major assets, we see no need to rush toward a permanent disposition of assets right now. Instead, we urge lawmakers to concentrate on getting the nonflood assets repaired by the state, which has money, and use the recovery period to develop a master plan for long-term disposition of the Orleans Levee District's nonflood assets and functions.