The Baton Rouge Advocate
The way Baton Rouge revitalizes communities and fights blight changed dramatically on Wednesday with the success of a long-proposed realignment of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, the Office of Community Development and the Housing Authority.
The plan means the Redevelopment Authority will become the main agency in Baton Rouge rehabilitating distressed properties and sprucing up less desirable parts of town. The Office of Community Development will mostly be gutted, with a few employees overseeing policy and still receiving federal funds for housing and revitalization programs, but the RDA will be the agency running the projects.
The Housing Authority also will take over managing property that OCD oversees, as well as some vouchers for low-income residents.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council spent two hours Wednesday debating and listening to arguments before agreeing to the multiple components of the plan. OCD has been on thin ice with the federal government for years, after checkered audits found multiple problems with the government agency.
City Hall was forced to repay $1.3 million a few months ago that OCD had misspent on bike paths and on jobs programs for people who did not qualify for the federal money. Turnover also has plagued the office, which has burned through four directors since 2015.
“Someone talked about the long track record of OCD, and that track record hasn’t been what it needs to be,” Metro Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg said as she tried to rally her fellow council members to approve the overhauls.
OCD also oversees federal money that local nonprofits use to provide housing for the poor, the mentally ill, those battling HIV and other groups of disenfranchised people in Baton Rouge. A number of nonprofit leaders who work with OCD and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber lent their support to the measure.
“All of our housing providers in the city have a long history of difficulty working with the Office of Community Development,” said Timothy Young, the CEO of Open Health Care Clinic and the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two.
Young said OCD owes his agency $863,000, saying it’s “neither good government nor good business.”
Some defended OCD and its workers, saying it was unfair for the city-parish to lay off workers who have given years to city government in the name of efficiency. Metro Council members eliminated more than 20 jobs in OCD, though many employees had already left.
“It’s almost like it has dismantled itself because the people that were there saw the handwriting on the wall that this was going to happen,” Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks said Baton Rouge still needs a robust OCD. And Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker worried about what would happen to programs run through OCD that already have waiting lists, like one where seniors have repairs made to their homes.
Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet and OCD Director Monika Gerhart assured the council members that those programs will continue, just under different leadership.
RDA interim Director Gwen Hamilton reminded council members that RDA is still a government operation and the Metro Council still will have the ability to approve funding for RDA projects.
“We are not ceding, we’re not outsourcing the control or responsibility for these federal grant dollars,” Gaudet said about the OCD and city-parish.
Metro Council members Freiberg, Erika Green, Dwight Hudson, Chandler Loupe, Matt Watson, Trae Welch, Scott Wilson, Buddy Amoroso and LaMont Cole voted in favor of the agreement between OCD and the RDA, the first vote that opened the door for the rest of the restructuring. Banks voted against it, Tara Wicker abstained, and Collins-Lewis did not vote.