St. George proponents say inaccuracies in economic study fan flames of opposition
City of St. George proponents say that while they "generally agree" with the findings in an economic study
recently commissioned by BRAC and BRAF and prepared by economist Jim Richardson, some inaccuracies are inflaming opposition to the proposed city of 107,000 in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish. The study says the incorporation of the city of St. George would, among other things, deprive the city-parish of 40% of its sales tax revenue and create a $53 million shortfall in the city-parish budget. Incorrect, the Committee to Incorporate St. George says in a news release today. While Richardson pegs city-parish revenues at $197 million if the city of St. George incorporates, the committee says the figure is $220 million. On the expense side of the equation for the city-parish, Richardson's study estimates $250 million. The St. George committee says the figure would be approximately $219 million. "This would result in an approximate $14 million shortfall instead of the reported $53 million," reads the release. The proponents issued their release today in response to comments made by Baton Rouge Association of Firefighters Local 557 President Shane Spillman on Monday, saying incorporation of St. George could negatively impact the Baton Rouge Fire Department and city-parish. The committee says "much of this fear is derived from the potential $53 million dollar shortfall that is forecast in the Richardson Study." —Staff report
Spinosa refinances Rouzan debt; Engquist out as lender
Developer Tommy Spinosa and his partners in Rouzan have refinanced their debt on the traditional neighborhood development and paid off the 12-month loan they had with local business executive and developer John Engquist,≠ who acquired the mortgage on the property in late 2012 from Banccorp South, the original lender. "I never intended to be the lender on a permanent basis," says Engquist. "It was always a short-term deal, and he was able to pay me off." Engquist declines to discuss the specifics of the deal, but sources familiar with the situation say the balance of the note was around $14 million. Attorney Charles Landry, who worked with Engquist on the deal, says Spinosa's ability to refinance Rouzan through a conventional lender speaks to the value of the 114-acre Rouzan property and the promise banks see in the TND. "Rouzan is a wonderful piece of property, and it isn't surprising Tommy would find a lender to refinance it," says Landry. "We are very happy for Tommy that he was able to refinance, and as to the new lender, they have great collateral. It is a spectacular property." Spinosa, through a spokesman, declines to comment. —Stephanie Riegel
RDA approves 2014 budget, recaps big projects of 2013
The East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority Board of Commissioners met this morning at its office at 801 North Boulevard and, within ten minutes, unanimously approved a motion to adopt the proposed 2014 budget. The RDA general fund budget
for the upcoming year includes anticipated revenues of approximately $178,000, and expenditures of roughly $1.35 million. The budget shows RDA's general fund entering the year with a more than $1.5 million surplus, meaning that even after next year's anticipated operating loss the fund will be left with about $370,000 at the end of 2014. The RDA also approved three other budgets relating to Community Development Block Grant funds from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike
; as well as grant funds from the Mayor's Healthy City Initiative
and other local grant funds.
Also today, RDA Executive Vice President and COO Mark Goodson recapped the bureau's 2013 accomplishments as well, highlighting the completion of the Ardendale master plan and the acquisition of 34 tax sale properties, 13 of which have been redeemed with an annualized return on the investment of 11%. Goodson also celebrated the completion of two New Markets Tax Credits-financed projects—the Hampton Inn & Suites downtown and the new YMCA in Zachary—and the completion of 166 units of residential projects through the Gap Finance program. Goodson called 2013 "an active year, one where we believe we've achieved significant outcomes." —Rachel Alexander
La. Supreme Court Justices panel settles misconceptions in the media
At a luncheon hosted by the Baton Rouge Federalist Society Chapter at Galatoire's, a panel of three Louisiana Supreme Court Justices seemed to be on a mission to clarify the public's perception of one of the most high-profile cases of the past year. Joining Justices Marcus Clark and Jeff Hughes, Justice Greg Guidry began with the court's decision to deny a writ application for a New Orleans case. The case involved the search of a panhandler under a city ordinance—which the city attorney's office had agreed not to enforce after the court struck it down for the second time in 2009—prohibiting the solicitation of funds. Although the search of the panhandler yielded a bag of cocaine, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals suppressed the evidence on the grounds that the search was illegal. "We denied writs in that case," Guidry said. "It had nothing to do with the purpose behind the statute or even in this case the constitutionality of the statute. It just dealt with the suppression. But the media reports of this case were almost uniform in stating the Louisiana Supreme Court approves panhandling and begging in the City of New Orleans." Looking forward to next year, Clark said one of the next significant cases will address whether or not a juvenile has the right to possess a firearm under the new state constitutional amendment protecting gun possession as a fundamental right. The opinion on that case will likely come out around January, Clark said. —Rachel Alexander Read the full story here.
Williams Olefins facing $99,000 in OSHA fines over Geismar explosion
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration this afternoon announced it is proposing $99,000 in fines for Williams Olefins as a result of the June explosion and fire at the company’s Geismar plant that killed two people and injured 80. “Williams Olefins violated safety and health standards which, when followed, can protect workers from hazardous chemicals,” says Dorinda Folse, OSHA’s area director in Baton Rouge, in a news release issued this afternoon. “It is the employer’s responsibility to find and fix workplace safety violations and to ensure the safety of its workers. Failing to do so cost two workers their lives.” OSHA says Williams Olefins was cited for five serious safety violations and one willful violation for failing to develop clear, written procedures for how to change and put idle pressure vessels into service. OSHA says a willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health. The company now has 15 business days to contest the findings. —Staff report
IBM exec sums up first six months in ‘friendly’ Baton Rouge
In the nearly six months since IBM opened a business services center in Baton Rouge in a temporary office suite on Essen Lane, the company has hired more than 100 employees, most of them from Baton Rouge and all but a handful from Louisiana. That level of hiring exceeds the benchmark IBM guaranteed the state, says Dima Ghawi, manager of talent development at IBM Baton Rouge Services Center, who was guest speaker of the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge today. “You would not believe the amount of work we have accomplished in the past six months," she says. Ghawi, a veteran IBM executive who has lived in several parts of the U.S. and abroad, says the service center is providing software development and support to blue chip clients around the U.S. She says the local center is working closely with LSU's College of Engineering to train students and help administrators develop a curriculum that will produce trained graduates that can go directly to industry, preferably at IBM. In keeping with IBM policy, Ghawi would not disclose the exact number of hires it has made, what their salary range is or who some of their clients are. "They are people you buy things from every day," she says. However, she did give new insights into what the local center is doing for its clients, mentioning, specifically, business commerce, building software applications and doing Oracle and SAP training and implementation. Ghawi also detailed some of the work IBM is doing with LSU—helping students one-on-one with both technical and "soft" skills, such as self-branding and building a career. Ghawi describes Baton Rouge as one of the friendliest cities she has ever lived and one that very quickly "felt like home." —Stephanie Riegel
Task force suggests changes to tuition and TOPS
A study panel is recommending that lawmakers give up their authority to control college tuition costs and put limits on the state's free college tuition program called TOPS. The suggestions were approved today by a group of higher education leaders and students—called the Tuition Task Force—that has been looking at college tuition policy since October. As The Associated Press reports, the recommendations will be submitted to lawmakers for consideration in the next legislative session. But the ideas aren't new, and many of them have been rejected by the Legislature in prior years, so it's unclear if they'll get renewed traction. The task force says tuition control should be given to university boards rather than lawmakers, and says TOPS awards should be a flat amount not tied to the price of tuition.
News roundup: Manship Theatre gets NEA grant for musical outreach event at Juvenile Detention Center … New Orleans leads nation in percentage of public charter school enrollment … Tulane med researchers seek crowdfunding money
Hitting the high notes:
The Manship Theatre is one of 150 not-for-profit organizations nationwide that will receive $10,000 through The National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America Fast-Track Grant program. The local grant will support an outreach event with musician Jon Batiste at the Baton Rouge Juvenile Detention Center on Feb. 28, during which Batiste will take part in an hour-long interactive workshop for children living in the center and those who have recently been placed in foster care. Head of the class:
New Orleans led the nation last year as the city with the greatest percentage of students enrolled in public charter schools, followed by Detroit and the District of Columbia, according to a new survey released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. According to the non-profit organization, 79% of public school students in New Orleans attended charters in the last school year, followed by 51% in Detroit, 43% in D.C., 36% each in Flint, Mich. and Kansas City, Mo. and 35% in Gary, Ind. The Washington Post has the full story.Taking it one pledge at a time:
Tulane University's School of Medicine is joining one of the latest trends in fund raising. Researchers at the school have launched a partnership with the crowdfunding website Microryza, which lets scientists go directly to the public for seed money for early stage research. Thirteen projects proposed by Tulane researchers are being displayed on the Microryza site, each with a specific fundraising goal. The goals range from around $5,000 to as much as $15,000. "It is a first shot at us trying this. This is very new," Mary Brown, vice dean and vice president of health sciences systems for Tulane, tells The Associated Press. Read the full story.