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Baton Rouge Voters Face $989M Package

DALLAS - The combined government of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish would embark on the largest infrastructure improvement program in its history if voters approve a $989 million bond package proposed by Mayor-President Melvin "Kip" Holden.

Holden and Richard Leibowitz of Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson LLP, the parish's bond counsel, outlined the plan to the Metropolitan Council's finance committee on Wednesday, which passed it along without recommendation to the full city-parish council for consideration at its meeting on July 23.

The program offers parish residents "a better quality of life, education, entertainment, and quality jobs," Holden said.

Holden wants the council to put on the ballot for the Nov. 4 general election a proposal to increase the parish-wide local sales tax by 0.5% to a total of 5% and raise the parish's property tax rate by 9.9 mills for 30 years to support the sales tax revenue bonds.

The parish's sales tax bonds have underlying ratings of A2 from Moody's Investors Service and A-plus from Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings.

Several councilors suggested splitting the program into three or more ballot questions and putting them to the voters at the Oct. 4 primary election, but Walter Monsour, the combined government's chief administrative officer, said the plan should be voted upon as a single measure in November.

"Two-thirds of these projects are things that just cannot be separated out," he said. "We haven't had a comprehensive infrastructure program in this parish since 1965, so we're trying to cure the ills of the past while providing some stimulus for economic development."

More voters will come to the polls for the November general election than for the October primary, Monsour said.

"We want to give the voters every opportunity to have their voices heard, so the administration is adamant that the election be held in November," he said. "That also gives us another 30 days to educate the voters through public meetings and press conferences in every district."

Holden said he was confident that at least seven of the 12 councilors will vote at Wednesday's session to set the tax election.

"I think we have the seven votes," he said. "The question is whether it will be on Oct. 4 or Nov. 4, and if it will be one question or three of them. If you look at the history of elections in Baton Rouge, there is almost a 30% increase in the number of people who come out to vote at presidential elections."

Holden said the bond proceeds would help solve problems that have not been addressed comprehensively since voters approved a capital improvement bond program for drainage projects in 1965. He dismissed a suggestion that the nationwide economic slowdown would make parish voters uneasy about authorizing almost $1 billion of additional debt.

"We've patched over these problems for decades," he said. "The timing is always rough when you're talking about taxes, but we have some serious problems.

"I firmly believe we have to be honest with the voters and tell them that there have been problems we needed to address for years in regards to drainage and other issues," Holden said. "We have to take care of them or else we may find ourselves like other cities, watching the infrastructure actually collapsing beneath vehicles."

The largest single project to be financed by the bond proceeds would be a $248 million nature-themed tourist attraction located on the Mississippi River in downtown Baton Rouge.

Known as Audubon Alive, the complex would include an aquarium, a river walk, a museum, and an attraction and research facility that would provide visitors with the experience of being in a hurricane.

The Audubon Nature Institute would operate the park through a public-private partnership. The organization operates the Audubon Zoo and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.

An economic study said the river park would bring 500,000 visitors a year to Baton Rouge.

The bonds would also provide $208 million for work on several major drainage channels throughout the parish and to replace 38 outdated and low-rated bridges.

A $145 million project at the River Center convention complex would add two parking garages and increase exhibit space at the convention center. Armada Hoffler, a Virginia-based hotel company, said it would build two hotels at the complex, one with 300 rooms and the other with 140 rooms, if the project were approved.

Holden said the expanded complex would allow the city to host conventions with up to 30,000 attendees.

The bond program also includes a new $135 million parish prison with 2,280 beds, an $87 million public safety complex for the police department and sheriff's office, a $49 million renovation of the county office building, $46 million to synchronize traffic signals in the parish, a new $43 million juvenile facility, and $28 million to replace eight outdated city fire stations.

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