Monday, February 18, 2019

How they throw away the key

If you go to jail in Louisiana, don't get too attached to the idea that, at the end of your sentence, they're actually going to let you out. Technically, they're supposed to but, you know, there's so much paperwork.
In 2005, a federal district court judge in Atlanta wrote she had been “unable to find any case... in which the detainment of a properly identified individual for days beyond his scheduled release date was held constitutionally permissible.”

That judge, Julie E. Carnes, who is now the Senior U.S. Circuit Judge in the 11th Circuit’s Court of Appeal, made the statement as part of a ruling on litigation by jailed people in Atlanta who sued a sheriff and the State of Georgia. The plaintiffs in that case had been overdetained by an average 3.9 days, court records show.

Despite those rulings, the Louisiana Department of Corrections appears to give itself in many cases anywhere from a few weeks to several months to process and release inmates. When New Orleans public defender Stanislav Moroz contacted the sheriff’s office to ask why Traweek was still in jail seven days after he was sentenced to time-served, OPSO employee Monique Filmore wrote back, “First of all Johnny Traweek was just sentenced on 5/2/18 so his paperwork has not went up yet.”

When Moroz checked in with OPSO five days later, Filmore reasponded, “He can’t get released until DOC sends him a release. The whole process takes about 2 weeks. He has to wait!!!!”

Meanwhile, an outgoing message on a DOC hotline states that “it takes at least 90 days after sentencing” for the department to calculate how much time a person must serve of their sentence. Only after this step is completed will DOC issue an official release date.
And that's "time served" can end up leaving you in jail for weeks or months. Some of the cases in this article end up tacking on years when the Sheriff and the Department of Corrections apply the Sewerage and Water Board billing system to calculating release dates.
A 2017 state auditor’s report on how DOC manages inmate data blasted the department as being incapable of calculating in an accurate and consistent manner how much time people should spend in prison and when they should be released.

For example, the auditor asked two DOC staffers to “calculate release dates on the same offender, and each used a different method. The two results differed by 186 days.” That would be a difference of about six months more in prison.

The haphazard manner in which DOC calculates time is one of the main drivers of overdetention and has resulted in multiple lawsuits, two of which the department recently settled for a total $250,000, records show. 
And this sort of thing happens all the time, apparently. Sure leaving people who have already served their sentences to sit indefinitely in dungeons is inhumane, expensive, and unconstitutional. But you gotta understand, not doing it is hard work.

In DOC’s official response to the legislative audit, Secretary James LeBlanc defended his staff, writing that the calculation of releases dates is a “very complex and ever changing” process that considers up to 20 different criteria. It is complicated even further, he said, by the Legislature passing new laws every year – such as 2017’s historic criminal justice reform package – which drastically alter the sentencing guidelines.

“Training for this job is ongoing and takes time to truly understand the intricacies of how each case is handled,” LeBlanc wrote. “Time computation staff are expected to know all laws, old and new.”

That same staff consists largely of people in entry-level jobs who collectively work on an average of 4,213 files per month, according to DOC. The staff’s turnover rate in 2017 was 33 percent. It dropped to an still-high 21 percent last year.
I suppose you could mitigate some of this instability by hiring more staff and paying solid wages and benefits but that's just crazy talk. Much better to waste that money housing prisoners at $54.20 per day per inmate for months and years longer than necessary.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Whose side is who on and when

One interesting thing about the Entergy situation is how slippery the councilmembers can be when pressure is applied. It was just a few days ago that Moreno helped introduce this resolution. Yesterday, she was among the suddenly SHOCKED SHOCKED at the utility's behavior
Perhaps banking too much on the City Council's goodwill, Entergy New Orleans pushed its luck Thursday, and lost out.

Its deal with a City Council committee to pay $5 million from its profits in exchange for the right to build a $210 million power plant in New Orleans East will still be considered by the full council.

But when Entergy officials tried to convince the committee to call the $5 million a "payment" instead of a fine, members balked.

"Marcus, you gotta be kidding me here," said Helena Moreno, the head of the utility committee, after Entergy counsel Marcus Brown requested the change.
Granted, that was a weasely maneuver.  But it can't have come as the kind of surprise Moreno played it up to be in the moment. The gas plant saga has gotten a ton of attention. Probably more than it really deserves. But it has opened the door for the public to vent frustrations with Entergy. That's always welcome under any circumstances.  It's also made for some entertaining theater.  Even though so much of that is Kabuki.

For example, here is Jay Banks trying to make sure everyone understands which side he's on now. Even though he has been on several.
But he shifted to defending his résumé after Monique Harden of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice questioned his silence on his one-time lobbying job with Legend Consulting Group, one of the groups that has long helped the council regulate Entergy.

From 2005 to 2008, he worked in a similar capacity for Entergy New Orleans.

"You’ve never disclosed it," Harden accused, claiming he worked for Legend in 2016, around the same time the group began to pitch the council on the plant. 

"Ma’am, I’ve never met you to tell you anything," he replied. "I don’t know you from a can of paint."
He then said that he did work for both Legend and Entergy because he was "good at what I do, just like Shaquille O'Neal."
See, Jay is very good at saying and doing whatever it is the sponsor paying him at that moment would like him to say or do.  Just like Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal may be one of the greatest big men to play in the NBA, but for all the success he had as a player, his career has become even more profitable since his retirement thanks to his turn in advertising. 

In an interview with reporter Bernard Goldberg for "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" on HBO, Shaq revealed through endorsement appearances with brands including Gold Bond, The General, and Carnival cruises; he's turned his post-playing career into a profitable enterprise of personal branding.
Today, The Lens published a report on a 2015 City Council resolution directing Entergy to “pursue the development of at least 120 megawatts of new-build peaking generation capacity within the City of New Orleans."  We could reasonably interpret that to mean that the Council, its consultants, and Entergy have always been on the same page regarding the gas plant proposal. Maybe there's no harm in that.

There are further complications.  The impetus for this begins with a federal regulatory settlement determining Entergy's overall reorganization.  Part of that settlement required Entergy to look at new ways to generate power in New Orleans. That directive is now being interpreted in various ways by Entergy and by the "environmental justice" groups filing lawsuits. Did the settlement dictate the new gas plant? Did Entergy inappropriately apply it to that purpose? Did the consultants push these interpretations in one way or the other?

These are not easy questions for us layfolk to answer. But we are pretty sure that the interests of a utility and its regulator and any consulting firms involved in the process are naturally going to conflict every now and again, right?  Which is why it's important to make sure we know who is on which side and when.
Banks clarified after the meeting that he quit his job at Legend on June 30, 2017, weeks before qualifying for the Oct. 14, 2017 municipal elections. 

"Please note that my most recent involvement in this process is on the side of the City Council, the regulator, which is the side I am on now as a City Council member," Banks said in a statement. "At no point have I ever attempted to, nor have I ever felt a need to hide this fact."
Okay but he's been on all three sides and has passed among them throughout the course of this one issue in progress. Seems a little off.  But let's not pick on Banks too much.  It's clear enough that under normal circumstances, when the atmosphere is less of a public circus, that this is the way it always works. 

Blocked and reported

Check out Zuckerberg's 21st Century Enemies List.
Other companies keep similar lists of threats, Bradley and other sources said. But Facebook is unique because it can use its own products to identify these threats and track the location of people on the list.

Users who publicly threaten the company, its offices or employees — including posting threatening comments in response to posts from executives like CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg — are often added to the list. These users are typically described as making "improper communication" or "threatening communication," according to former employees.

The bar can be pretty low. While some users end up on the list after repeated appearances on company property or long email threats, others might find themselves on the BOLO list for saying something as simple as "F--- you, Mark," "F--- Facebook" or "I'm gonna go kick your a--," according to a former employee who worked with the executive protection team. A different former employee who was on the company's security team said there were no clearly communicated standards to determine what kinds of actions could land somebody on the list, and that decisions were often made on a case-by-case basis.
All you have to do is write, "Fuck Facebook"?  That's gotta be a pretty big list of people by now.  At Facebook, it's also a long list of people who are never really out of earshot of the bosses.

In 2017, a Facebook manager alerted the company's security teams when a group of interns she was managing did not log into the company's systems to work from home. They had been on a camping trip, according to a former Facebook security employee, and the manager was concerned about their safety.

Facebook's information security team became involved in the situation and used the interns' location data to try and find out if they were safe. "They call it 'pinging them', pinging their Facebook accounts," the former security employee recalled.

After the location data did not turn up anything useful, the information security team then kept digging and learned that the interns had exchanged messages suggesting they never intended to come into work that day — essentially, they had lied to the manager. The information security team gave the manager a summary of what they had found.

Chasing numbers

RTA has a plan for the Canal Streetcar. It's a very data-driven plan.   The objective is to get one specific number down a little bit. 
The proposal, which has not yet been finalized, could be rolled out as a pilot project from May through December of this year.

Officials say it would trim almost 14 minutes from the trip from the river to Carrollton and about 10 minutes and 30 seconds going the other way, according to a report presented to RTA board members Thursday. That would mean trips in either direction would take about 22 minutes.
That's all well and good if all you do is track how long it takes to move one streetcar from point A to point B.  That's an easily measurable outcome.  Everybody loves those.  Unfortunately it doesn't account for people's actual experience traveling through or along the affected route. That's trickier.

For streetcar passengers, it might depend on where they're starting from.  For some, they may have to walk significantly further.
The plan calls for eliminating 30 of the 49 stops along the route, mostly in the area between Carrollton and Claiborne avenues. The longest distance between stops would be the seven-block stretch between Carrollton and Jefferson Davis Parkway.
If, in theory, we're saving 10 minutes heading in bound on the streetcar, how much are we giving back if we have to walk an extra 4 or 5 blocks to board?  That sounds like it's almost a wash already. By focusing only on the streetcar travel time, we're deliberately ignoring the effect on the transit system from a holistic perspective. That includes the effect on vehicular traffic, by the way.
The eliminated stops would largely coincide with the closing of intersections and crossings that allow U-turns across the neutral ground. According to the plan, 17 intersections that don’t have traffic signals would be closed, as would five turnarounds.
In other words, they're planning a severe interruption of the street grid at Canal Street which is already something of a bottleneck as it is.  The new scheme will further congest neighborhood traffic flow and funnel even more cars onto Broad and Jeff Davis.  Eliminating the turnarounds is also likely to jam up Canal Street as well.

So lots of people are going to have a harder time getting through this area of town.  BUT the streetcar moves between stops at a marginally faster rate.  Does that make for a more efficient and user friendly transit system?  Who cares, so long as we achieve our designated measurable outcome, the project justifies itself.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Declare a local emergency

Mayor Cantrell should follow the President's example and just take the moneeys from these people.  No need to bother with so many tedious negotiations.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell put a timeline Wednesday on her effort to convince city, state and tourism industry leaders to divert more tax revenue to New Orleans infrastructure projects, saying she wants to have an agreement hashed out with those groups before the legislative session begins this April.

She also said her plan to get the city “its fair share” does not solely rely on pulling funds from the tourism industry, and that she has continued to comb the couch cushions at City Hall to find other funding for the struggling Sewerage and Water Board.
Those negotiations haven't been going so well, either. At least so far, they haven't. The tourism cabal and its political enablers have largely balked at LaToya's demands. Which is one reason she wants to make it clear they aren't the only people she's going after.
The city could go after about $26 million in unpaid traffic tickets she says it is owed, as well as unpaid invoices to insurance companies whose patients use the city's EMS services to get to and from area hospitals. And she again touted her demand to the Superdome Commission for unpaid rent she says it owes for its use of a city-owned portion of Champions Square. 
She could have left the traffic tickets out of this. But it wouldn't be LaToya Cantrell if she weren't at least trying to harass some poor people too just to make sure she gets the right "balance" or whatever.  Where does that instinct come from?

Well one thing we've noticed is the Bureau of Governmental Research seems to have had the mayor's ear an awful lot with regard to policy formulation during her first year in office. That can be good and bad.  From a purely technical standpoint, BGR can be a useful source of information. But, as a political actor, it tends to favor conservative priorities. Take this recent report on tourism generated revenues, for example. It does a great job of laying out the problems with the money that goes to the cabal, the ways in which they misuse it, the financial tricks they pull to keep it rolling in, and the wide discrepancy with the way this is handled in other cities.

But see if you can spot what BGR gets wrong. It's right here at the top.
A new report from the Bureau of Governmental Research released on Wednesday found a lack of accountability and transparency when it comes to New Orleans hotel tax revenue, and recommended that the city get at least $12 million more per year, either by raising hotel taxes or reallocating hotel taxes that are now being used to boost tourism.

The 16.35 percent in nightly hotel taxes applied to hotel guest bills in Orleans Parish brings in an enormous amount of cash each year — $200 million, or roughly one-sixth of all local tax revenue in Orleans Parish.

But only $20.8 million of that is allocated to the city government, the report said. And about ten percent of that has to be spent on tourism, leaving just $18.9 million for general municipal services.

$12 million more is still not even approaching a "fair share."  Indications are the mayor understands this. But she does listen to BGR a lot. So it's something to keep a wary eye on. If anybody is going to talk her into backing down, it would be them.  But, at least on this particular question, the result has been positive thus far.

As always, though, we'd prefer she just go ahead and take the moneeeys. Declare martial law. Seize Stephen Perry's house. She's most of the way there already.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell asked Gov. John Bel Edwards last month to give the city $75 million immediately to deal with its infrastructure needs. She also requested the governor assemble a “working group,” tasked with addressing how the state will find this emergency to help its drainage, drinking water and sewage system problems.

That group had its first meeting to work on short-term solutions. A long-term fix isn’t part of its current focus, according to the governor’s office
We have an emergency situation here such that we have to ask the Governor to give us 75 million emergency dollars for.. well.. we can't say, exactly.. but it's an emergency so we don't have to. But the ballpark picture is this.
Cantrell did not specify in her letter how the $75 million would be used. Her office later said it would be spent on Sewerage & Water Board work and obligations: paying contractors, covering its portion of major Uptown drainage improvements, upgrading a turbine that can’t run in cold weather, and modernizing its power system.
Yeah, okay, close enough, maybe? For now?  We'd like to know more about who is actually sitting in on these "working group" meetings but, you know, emergencies being what they are and all...  
Cantrell’s letter asked the governor to form a “working group to identify short and long term solutions to these funding concerns." That group met for the first time Wednesday, but will primarily focus on coming up with the $75 million the mayor has requested immediately, according to his spokeswoman Christina Stephens.

The governor’s office has not yet provided the names of the people who are part of the working group.
I'm sure they're all fine people who will make the best decisions on our behalf.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Ask forgiveness rather than permission

Or, in Entergy's case, I guess it's more like asking for forgiveness after having already gotten permission and then sinking a whole bunch of money before anybody might think to revoke that permission.  Something like that. 

Anyway it worked.
Moreno first announced the resolution to rescind approval for the plant on Jan. 17 as a response to the results of an independent counsel investigation that found that Entergy “knew or should have known” that one of its subcontractors were paying actors to support the plant at council meetings.

But late last month, Moreno walked back her call for a revote.

“New dynamics are in play which puts the city and the Council in a different position,” she said in a Jan. 30 press release. “The reason? Costs, specifically the significant costs that have already been incurred.”
It would be silly to think that this was every going to turn out any other way.  Still it's not the absolute worst thing that could happen. Much of the opposition to the plant is aspirational politics anyway. Yes, we want to stop using fossil fuels. Yes, we want to shut down gas fracking. Yes, we want to stop carbon energy producers from ripping our wetlands up with pipelines.  Would revoking this particular construction permit do any of that?  Nah.  But it's fine to take the opportunity to make that case... even if it doesn't result in any tangible action.

Gutter buddies

From LaToya's pre-Carnival pep talk today:
Another new feature headed to parade routes is called a "gutter buddy," which is a sandbag placed in front of catch basins to prevent beads and other items from flowing in and clogging them.
Actually, these were a "new feature" last year along the parade routes uptown.  Here's what they look like.

Storm drain stuffing

Those didn't appear to be sandbags, though. Maybe they're going heavy duty this time around.  Hope it doesn't rain too hard while they're deployed. We do still have a drainage problem to worry about. And the "gutter buddies" are supposed to be good at plugging up culverts. 

Mosaic thinks so, anyway.
A fertilizer plant in St. James Parish is siphoning hazardous wastewater out of a retaining pond to try to prevent the possible collapse of a retaining wall, but also preparing to respond if it cannot prevent the failure, records show. A letter from the Mosaic Uncle Sam fertilizer plant to the Environmental Protection Agency outlined preparations to try to prevent the wastewater from contaminating surrounding wetlands if the wall collapses.

The plans include installing or staging plugs for nearby culverts to try to contain the wastewater, should it be released, according to a letter to the EPA date Jan. 30.
The waste water is sitting behind a 200 foot wall of gypsum right now.  That's a pretty big gutter buddy itself.  I'm sure some sandbags will be fine if that fails, though.

Now that's what I call being intentional

Good on LaToya 'n em for getting out and doing the ladder harangue nice and early this year
As Carnival kicks off in New Orleans, state and city officials spoke Tuesday morning to detail deployment plans and reinforce long-standing rules for parades.

Residents were reminded not to spraypaint neutral grounds or leave parade gear like tarps and ladders out unless a parade is imminent.

"We will not store items," said Ann McDonald, the director of New Orleans parks and parkways. "We will not tag items. Any items that we remove will be destroyed.”
It's never gonna be perfect but I felt like last year's decision to highlight these rules made a bit of a difference.  That's just anecdotal based on what I see out there. But I do see a lot of Mardi Gras every year and it seems to me like people have been getting slightly better about this stuff as the city makes a better effort to raise awareness.

2019 is a late Carnival season, though, and often that means bigger, rowdier, more spring break type crowds.  Which makes it even more important that we stay on the ball with regard to enforcing the etiquette.  And that doesn't necessarily mean having more cops issue more citations and take more people's stuff. It could also mean just remembering to be nice to people when you're out there. Share your space, let people through, help your neighbor out, set a good example, that sort of thing.

Update:  In other words, hey, guys, definitely do not do this
Hate having to camp out for a good spot for Mardi Gras? One Facebook user says he has you covered.

"Don't feel like sleeping overnight outside to keep a good spot for Mardi Gras," the post says.

Kenneth Sampey says to let him and his friends help you, by keeping a 10-by-10 spot on St. Charles Avenue for Mardi Gras Day.

The fee for the service? $2,000.
Some hard hitting journalism going on here, also. 
We're not certain how real the post is, but check it out for yourself.

How much would you pay for the convenience?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

There's a lot of opportunities

If you know where to take them 
A new federal program pitched as a way to aid low-income communities is ramping up across Louisiana, but after a political scramble to make various struggling areas eligible for the tax break, it's investors and real estate developers who are starting to reap the benefits.

Last year, more than 150 census tracts in Louisiana were designated as Opportunity Zones under a provision in the 2017 tax-cut bill designed to encourage investment in economically hard-hit areas.

Basically what this says is the Trump tax cut bill was turbocharged with "opportunity zone" breaks for your local electeds to hand out as patronage to real estate developers who will be rewarded for building more nice things for rich people. 
Another potential hiccup, according to tax-law analyst Samantha Jacoby of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is that the program does not include any requirements that local residents benefit from the investments.

Wealthy people, not poor people, are the ones who have capital gains, she noted. And areas that are already attractive to investors are getting the benefit, such as the New York City neighborhood where Amazon has announced its intention to build a new headquarters.

"While the new tax break enables investors to accumulate more wealth, it includes no requirements to ensure that local residents benefit," said Chuck Marr, a colleague of Jacoby at the CBPP, where he focuses on federal tax policy.

When the law was being crafted, Tulane’s Lalka said it was pitched as a way of enticing people to invest in start-ups and small businesses. But since it’s been enacted, real estate has dominated the activity surrounding the program.
The "zones" are determined at the state level which means that John Bel Edwards's LED got to cut hundreds of deals for Cedric Richmond and countless local officials. The bankers and developers connected to Cedric or to this or that city councilperson or mayor swarmed in to take advantage. Joe Jaeger is here. So is Sidney Torres. And.. well... here we go with another one of these stories.

Let's make lots of money.

I know this isn't exactly shocking or anything but I do like to remind people just how little incentive any elected person has to do anything except enact special favors for the wealthy.  It's one reason, even the feints they make at providing relief for people being squeezed by rapacious capital are careful to treat only the symptoms and not the disease.
Specifically, the council's resolution asks the Legislature to consider a constitutional amendment to help residents whose tax bills have doubled in one year, who have lived in the city since 2004 and who have low to moderate incomes.    Council members said the idea is to help people who have seen their home values and resulting property taxes skyrocket due to pricey renovations on nearby homes.

Often, investors will buy an old property, pour in tens of thousands of dollars of renovations and quickly sell it for a profit, a practice commonly known as house flipping. The proliferation of short-term rentals in the city has made such flipping more common.

The council's proposal "doesn’t hurt anyone who has paid half a million dollars for a house," said Councilman Jay H. Banks. "But it also does not penalize people who have been living in neighborhoods their whole lives, who haven’t ever seen half a million dollars."
Maybe if Jay Banks weren't so careful not to hurt the house flippers, we wouldn't be stuck in a cycle of figuring out what tax credit we have to grant to middle class homeowners in order to mask the damage done by the massive privileges granted to the plutocrats.

It's a cycle that's about to start again, by the way.  I'm not sure how many people caught Banks's comments during the last round of bickering over short term rentals.  Neither paper quoted him on this point but, at the January 10th Council meeting,  Banks said he no longer believes STRs are killing affordable housing.  He even suggested creating... yep...  "opportunity zones" ...where they would be more liberally permitted in residential areas he, or whichever developers have his ear, might deem in need of a little investment.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Just put it on the credit card

Jeff Landry should know how that works by now.  He spent enough time last year investigating the way LaToya used hers and couldn't find anything worth prosecuting.  Seems like this should be a pretty simple transaction in light of all that.
A dispute between Attorney General Jeff Landry and a former campaign worker is heating up, with the two tussling in court over what the operative claims is an unpaid debt of between $175,000 and $250,000 from Landry’s 2015 campaign.

The jilted campaign worker, Dwayne Alexander, is a prodigious filer of lawsuits. He has also gotten into past trouble for working as a private investigator without a required license.
Ha ha "prodigious filer of lawsuits.  Technically, it's Landry suing Alexander this time around just to try and get him to back off.   Anyway what Landry tried to buy from Alexander, apparently, were black votes in Orleans Parish because, Landry reasoned, that is what one does.  Landry also must have figured he was being very smart about it.  He shopped around for the right "broker." Alexander was the low bid.
The campaign first got in touch with former state Rep. Sherman Copelin for similar services, but Copelin’s price was too high, according to an affidavit filed by Harvey. Copelin said in a phone interview that he didn’t remember whether such a meeting had occurred.
The Harvey referred to there is Bob Harvey, by the way.  He's here along with Copelin and Bob D'Hemecourt, and Shane Guidry because of course all of them would be in a story like this.... in 1990! Bands are getting back together for this one.  But that's all very fitting since we're also talking about trading favors for favors. 
Alexander makes another eye-popping claim – that Landry’s lawyer, Stephen Oats of Lafayette, suggested he might be able to satisfy Alexander’s debt with public money instead of campaign cash, by expediting a $300,000 legal judgment Alexander is owed by the state in an unrelated matter.
Again, this could probably all be solved with a credit card. But Landry wants to be all hard headed about it.  

It's just a kind of hotel license

I swear it wasn't very long ago that we were all sold on the absolutely urgent need to build new, dense, high rise housing in downtown New Orleans.  After all the city was in the midst of a housing crisis. There was land sitting vacant on relatively high ground in the CBD.  We had all of these tax subsidies, HUD grants and CDBG money to pass around to developers. It was time to make some stuff.

Of course all we did with all of that was build luxury housing for rich people and tourists in the form of a trendy neighborhood created out of whole cloth. But that was fine, we were told.  As long as we were building in more "housing supply" downtown, the benefits would trickle down market eventually.  This is what we were told even after the wholesale demolition of public housing had put the supply of affordable units at a significant deficit.

Anyway here we are in 2019 and we're still in a housing crisis.  Meanwhile the nice things we built for rich people and tourists are juicing the market for.. even more nice things for rich people and tourists.
Preservationists Mike and Bettye Duplantier bought a run-down historic town house at 820 Baronne in 1978 and enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the neighborhood’s transition from skid row to prime South Market District real estate. Little did they know that 40 years later a well-meaning young couple would dream of converting the spacious adjoining town house at 822 Baronne into a 10 to 12-room boutique hotel with lobby bar and courtyard. Both buildings share a common attic.

McEnergy Residential broker Ashley Scurria immediately recognized 822 Baronne as a worthwhile development project for her and husband Stuart, regional sales consultant for KLS Martin. Partnering with his parents Dr. Mark and DeAnn Scurria and contractor David Fusilier of Perle Construction, LLC, Scurria is seeking the necessary zoning change to re-purpose the historic 4100 square foot structure with the highest and best use in mind. The building falls within CBD-5 zoning. Hotel occupancy is permitted as a Conditional Use per the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO). The zoning designation also permits the operation of a short term rental (STR).

That's Danae Columbus with the "skid row to prime" characterization, just in case that gave you the same giggle I had.  She does mention later in the column that she owns property in the area herself so we can understand she has some interest in exaggerating the value of her investment there.   You're probably also snickering at the story of how a real estate broker with help from her in-laws went and bootstrapped herself up an opportunity. But let's leave that aside.  

The real reason I'm flagging this in the first place is what it says about the way developers view short term rental permits.  
Scurria’s company, 822 Baronne LLC, hired the architectural firm Concordia to assist them through the process. A boutique hotel was not Scurria’s first choice, Concordia explained to interested property owners at a Neighborhood Participation Program (NPP) meeting on Tuesday. While Scurria plans to utilize every square foot of available space to maximize financial viability, she would have preferred to operate a short term rental (STR). Based on the building’s “bones,” Concordia drew up a development plan that included 12 bedrooms. The maximum number of sleeping rooms allowed under STR regulations for a single structure is 9. The city designates any building with 10 or more bedrooms as a hotel, said Concordia.
It wasn't very long ago we were all sold on the urgent need to liberalize short term rental permissions. After all, the city was in the midst of a housing crisis. And we were told that STRs were going to help provide New Orleanians the extra revenue they needed to "stay in their homes" or something like that. But it turns out, in practice, it's just a different kind of hotel permit.  Because, even during a housing crisis, developers still only want to build nice things for rich people and tourists.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Qatar on the bayou

It's hard to crack into the WSJ archives. This was one of my very favorite op-eds of theirs that wasn't penned by Bobby Jindal.  That link runs up against the paywall, though.  I happened to pull the funny quote from it at the time. But also here is a site where the full text is preserved. Anyway, here is what I'm talking about.
So let’s put it this way: We are building a Qatar on the Bayou. From whole cloth, companies are laying new cities of fertilizer plants, boron manufacturers, methanol terminals, polymer plants, ammonia factories and paper-finishing facilities. In computer renderings, the Sasol site looks like a fearsome, steel-fitted Angkor Wat.

Now the environmental website where the text of this article is preserved has added photos, links and commentary to recontextualize things a bit. But in its original form it was pretty clear this  "Qatar on the Bayou" iteration was meant as a compliment.  Understandably, not everyone takes it as such. 

While the Sasol project described above has since been scaled back, the chemical boom in South Louisiana has nevertheless persisted... much to everyone's great excitement in St. James Parish.
CONVENT — Shouting "shut it down" on the front lawn of Mosaic Fertilizer's administrative office, a collection of St. James Parish residents, outside environmental activists and pastors called Wednesday for the state to close the Uncle Sam plant with its endangered lake of hazardous water threatening surrounding land and waterways.

Company officials and state regulators have been scrambling for several weeks to prevent a catastrophic release of more than 700 million gallons of the acidic process water held inside an enormous lake atop a 200-foot high pile of the company's waste byproduct outside Convent.
I've been watching this story all week and I'm still not sure if the "process water" threatens to contaminate the river if it slips loose.  I only ask because I am concerned it might not be so great at cooling turbines

More to the point, though...

More pointedly, the local group Rise St. James and other activists urged the state to halt continued permitting of any new industrial operations in St. James Parish, like the $9.4 billion Formosa complex proposed across the Mississippi River in Welcome or the $1.2 billion Wanhua complex proposed across the street from the Mosaic waste pile.

"As Rise St. James and as the residents of St. James have said repeatedly, St. James is full, and nothing shows it more clearly than this facility that needs to be shut down now," said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "You can't handle what you got, don't bring in any more."

Gail Leboeuf, a Convent resident who grew up near the pile, said she watched the plant being built and watched the pile rise higher and higher through the years.
One could almost call it the Angkor Wat of gypsum if one wanted to keep the metaphor going.  But why would we want to do that?  It was all mixed up in the first place.  The Angkor Wat is in Cambodia and we're trying to be Qatar.. right?  Maybe we need to just stop.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Park of broken promises

It's important to remember how much of the current housing crisis in New Orleans is a crisis we entered into by choice. When City Council voted to knock down the "Big Four" public housing complexes and turn them over to people like Pres Kabacoff who explicitly talk about poor people as "a drag on the city's economy" the clear implication was they were voting to remove as many poor people as possible from the valuable downtown real estate they were such a drag on.

Of course we were promised (some of) the affordable housing destroyed in the process would be replaced.  We were never promised where or when that would happen explicitly.  But we were led to believe certain properties in the city's hands could be used for that purpose.  Like, for example, the cite of the former St. Aloisious High School. Well now, of course, even that is controversial.
A long-vacant plot of land straddling the Treme and 7th Ward neighborhoods in New Orleans has become a focal point of tension between nearby residents’ desire for a park and the city, which is backing a housing development with affordable units.

Neighbors and supporting local groups say they want a community park space there that they’ve committed to paying for and maintaining themselves. Some have been pushing for a park since 2011, pitching design and fundraising plans they say have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall under two different mayoral administrations.
And, of course, Real Estate professional Kristin Palmer is leading the charge.  Palmer swears housing is still a priority.  Just not here. Not now. 
Even so, Palmer, whose council district covers the Esplanade site, highlighted a recent land survey that found more than 200 lots are vacant in the surrounding area. She said the city could still achieve its goals for more affordable housing while granting neighbors their wishes for a park.

“This is not an ‘and-or’ (situation),” Palmer said. “We have the ability to have everything we want if we talk about it with a collaborative approach.”
 What does "200 vacant lots" mean, exactly?  Are these privately or publicly held?  What sort of  "collaborative approach" happens to get them developed?  Here we have a piece of land we can make a decision on today.  And look what our priority is for that.  Will it be any different with the next lot? Or the one after that?

Banana stand

There's always money somewhere
After months of mounting worries about the Sewerage & Water Board’s finances, it turns out the public utility ended 2018 with plenty of cash in the bank.

A last-minute infusion of more than $20 million in reimbursements from FEMA and the discovery of $25 million that had not previously been accounted for pulled the S&WB out of a downward spiral that had caused it to draw down most of its reserves throughout the fall, officials said Wednesday.

Okay so there isn't always $20 million in FEMA money. But it is almost always possible for an agency like S&WB to find the money it needs somewhere before it starts trying to squeeze it out of the most vulnerable people by threatening to turn their water off or brake their legs or whatever.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Welp, Mitch is not running

Not right now, anyway.
After months with his name floating on lists of potential candidates in next year's Democratic presidential primaries, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave his most definitive remark on 2020 yet.

Landrieu told CNN on Wednesday morning that he does not think he will seek his party's presidential nomination.

"I don't think so," Landrieu said when asked about a potential candidacy. "A lot of people have asked me that. I never say never, but at this point in time I don't think I'm going to do it."
The headline on that story says, Mitch "cranks up presidential race chatter" by saying probably not. So that's weird.

Of course he could still do it.  I think the Democrats are trying to flood the market with as many flavors of candidate as they can throw out there in 2020... so long as they're all flavors of mainstream Democratic Party thought.  Talk about health care but keep the insurance companies on board. Talk about racism but don't challenge abusive police too loudly. Talk about climate change but try and get the fossil fuel producers to be "partners" in your resilience strategy.  Whatever you do don't make any defense contractors mad. That sort of thing.

We can only speculate about how deliberate the strategy is but I would argue that it's at least a symptom of their consumer capitalism based understanding of how democracy is supposed to work.  Just throw out an infinite number of niche brands of basically the same product so every individual can choose the one that most speaks to them. If you keep everyone divided up like that, there's less chance an anti-establishment movement campaign can get any traction.

So for the Dems, right now, the more candidates, the better. At least that's the theory.  They don't necessarily need Mitch for that. But probably nobody is telling him to stay out at this point.

Welp, Leon is running

There had been speculation that Cannizzaro might be ready to hang it up in 2020.  But this sure sounds like campaign rhetoric to me.  The worst kind too.
In 2015, Cannizzaro signed onto a grant application for a study aimed at reducing the jail population. But he turned into a critic of the project after the District Attorney’s Office was cut out of the grant award.

“When I see public safety being imperiled by ill-conceived policy decisions and social experiments, I … tend to speak my mind,” said Cannizzaro, New Orleans’ top prosecutor since 2008. “The silent majority of New Orleans residents who are concerned about their safety can no longer wait to speak up. We need caring citizens, we need business leaders, we need influential donors and we especially need voters to start raising your voices in defense of rational policy decisions, public safety and common sense.”
It's been clear for a while that Leaon has a nose for money since his philosophy is changeable in accordance with whether or not anybody is giving him some.  But at least now that he is into this quasi-fascistic fear baiting appeal to a "silent majority"routine,  he does us the favor of coming right out and saying he wants the attention of  some "business leaders" and "influential donors." 

In any case, this all means he's either running for reelection or there is some other behind the scenes funding squabble we aren't privy to at the moment.

Blackface: An American rite of passage

It's just one of those things the lads have to do in their.. um.. academic clubs. We don't know why, exactly.  Let's just say it prepares them for leadership.
I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow, Virginia’s incredibly messed-up state of political affairs has gotten even worse, with an admission by Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring on Wednesday that, as a teenager, he wore blackface to a party in 1980.

Yes, Virginia has another blackface scandal.
So yeah, big LOLs and all but this isn't really that much of a coincidence. The elite schools and fraternities where much of your political leadership is incubated have racism and harassment baked deeply into their cultures. Examples abound everywhere.  Since it's been in the news I'm a little surprised no one has mentioned former mayoral and gubernatorial candidate and Advocate owner John Georges is one

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Will we ever sophisticate up the corruption?

I feel like we're never gonna live up to Robert Cerasoli's one time aspirations.  In fact, the rest of the country is doing stupider and stupider corruption to catch up with us. It was supposed to be the other way around. Anyway, our home grown grifters are as dumb as they ever were.

Auditors were also not given five requested contracts to see whether the nonprofit had followed the Louisiana Public Bid Law, nor did they receive board meeting minutes to show if the contracts were approved by the board.

The group’s board president, Rev. Charles Southall III spent $1,514 on meals at restaurants in New Orleans and Baton Rouge in six months starting in July 2016. This year, auditors wrote that the school’s accounting policies and procedures manual “does not contain any policies on credit card control, allowable business use, documentation requirements, required approvers or monitoring credit card usage.”

Southall did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

When it came to federal funding, auditors found the group “incurred significant operating losses” last school year. That wasn’t because those grants were cut but because the school wasn’t keeping up with its federal reimbursement paperwork.

“The school was not sending in budget revisions so their federal reimbursements were delayed,” Cryer said. “But because there is no 2019 year then that amount is going to be in question whether they’d get the reimbursement.”

The school was allowed to carry over approximately $164,000 in unused federal reimbursements from last year to this year, but it’s unclear how much of that was used.

The Trump Show

I stopped actively watching the daily pageant a long time ago. What does it matter that he says any particularly outrageous thing or another at a rally or an orb touching or a  not-really-a-summit or a press opportunity or any of these stage managed non-events.  It's just a TV show.  There is nothing to be learned from any of it.

They even un-shutdown the government for a few weeks so he could get this one in.  But it's just more of the same. They're gonna applaud. He's gonna say some words. The cold open of SNL will be something about Nancy Pelosi making faces from behind him or something. Stacey Abrams will respond. Bernie Sanders will do the most atrocious sexism/racism in history by commenting after she is finished. None of it will advance anything in any direction.  Then the shutdown can resume.  On to 2020.. etc. etc.

It can always be worse

Never forget that
The tools used to measure relative sea level rise in low-lying coastal areas, including coastal Louisiana, are only telling half of the story, according to a Tulane University study published in Ocean Science. Researchers say sea level rise estimates don’t account for the primary contributor to higher water levels: sinking marsh.
Not that "sooner rather than later" is a radically new assumption for us.  But every time we get a newer and more urgent warning bell, it's instructive to look around and see the response is always the same.  Some concern expressed. Some "resilience" pilot projects floated.  One or two depressing stories about  how poorly things are going for "climate refugees."  And that's from the side that actually acknowledges the problem in the first place.

Anyway, the only policy response that is possible from the only kind of politics we know how to do will be about making sure the costs of the disaster are borne by the most vulnerable while the "oppotunities" it presents continue to benefit those who brought it about in the first place.

Swapping spit with turbines

You know New Orleans tap water has won state and national "taste tests" on several occasions. (This really is a thing.)  I always wondered what the secret was.   Turns out it's very possibly the turbine backwash.
Under the current set-up, which Korban said has been in place for more than 100 years, the turbines that power the S&WB's systems are cooled by drawing water that has already been treated by the utility. That water moves through copper pipes in the turbines before being poured back into a pool of water that is then sent out to taps across the city.

While that system is designed to keep the cooling water from coming in contact with the mechanical equipment, it raises the risk that contaminated water could be introduced into the drinking supply.
During the pitch for an aborted early 2000s privatization scheme, Ray Nagin wanted to bottle and sell the city water. He suggested we brand it as "Crescent City Clear."  I wonder if he would have followed through on the whole thing if he had the tagline, "It's like kissing 25 cycles of power" available.

Yelling at the mayor opportunities

Mayor Cantrell is hosting a series of public townhalls in order to promote the parks/Audubon millage on the March 4 ballot.  You can talk to her about that or... probably... whatever else might be on your mind if you stop by at one of these. Here is the schedule.
All meetings will run from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. The schedule is as follows:
City Park, Parkview Terrace Room

Lyons Recreation Center

Algiers Regional Library

Corpus Christi Community Center

East New Orleans Regional Library
Also, speaking of Audubon, New Orleans, it is time to welcome the return of your king
Valerio is ready to greet the public again, from a fortified pen designed to keep his bone-crushing bite to himself.

Audubon Zoo officials announced Monday that they will reopen the New Orleans zoo's jaguar habitat with 3-year-old Valerio, nearly seven months after the male jaguar broke through a steel wire barrier and mauled nine other animals early on a Saturday morning in July, killing them all. . 

Valerio will turn 4 years old on March 12, by the way.  Here is a photo from, I believe, the day he turned 1 at the San Diego Zoo where he was born

Valerio birthday (San Diego)

Monday, February 04, 2019

The boil order decade

Seems we are still living in it.  One thing that's happened in the last year or so is we've started getting these precisely defined boil orders that affect very specific areas rather than just the east or west bank or "areas east of the Industrial Canal" or whatever.
The boil water advisory extends from Almonaster Avenue to the Industrial Canal and includes all of the Lower 9th Ward. New Orleans East is not affected by the advisory, according to a news release from the S&WB.
It's like we're getting better at tracking and containing the wild amoeba.  But our science is some ways away from stopping it altogether.  It's kind of like the jaguar in that regard, I guess. 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Lifestyle center

I don't really know what that is or how it is different from, say, a "healing center" other than to say one of those was dreamed up by Pres Kabacoff when he was gentrifying Bywater and this one is Sidney Torres on the Greenway.
A swath of undeveloped land just past Jefferson Davis Parkway offers one of the few blank slates left along the Greenway in Mid-City. It’s owner is real estate and waste management magnate Sidney Torres IV, whose property purchases along the Greenway include the land where Wrong Iron and the Edwards Communities apartments stand.

Torres has been contemplating what to do with that land. Now that Wrong Iron is open and busy, his vision for what he calls a “lifestyle center” is coming into sharper focus. In a series of recent interviews, Torres cautioned that plans for the site are extremely preliminary; he hasn’t talked to neighborhood groups about them or even vetted them to see if they conform to local zoning standards.
Also, bonus points for getting the phrase "blank slate" in there. It's not like that is freighted with all sorts of problematic implications or anything.  I don't know if Litten is deliberately trolling the readers with that or if he is just flattering Torres. It's probably the latter. Not that it matters. Either way he conveniently skips over details of the story that actually tells what Sidney is up to.

For one thing, nothing here addresses the fact that Sidney's development is subsidized in part by a $6 million PILOT agreement.
Late last year, Edwards Companies received a $6 million tax break from the Industrial Development Board in the form of a payment-in-lieu-of-tax program that reduces the company's property tax liability while construction continues. To obtain the break, the company agreed to offer 13 of its apartments at reduced rates to individuals who make about 30 percent of the area's median income.
Thirteen "affordable" (by a tricky definition) out of nearly 400 units is hardly anything to be proud of.  It certainly doesn't justify a shell game operation like PILOT which drains revenue away from public schools and services leaving poor and working class residents at a net welfare loss regardless of how "affordable" these 13 apartments might be.

What's worse, though, is Torres and his partners (Hicham Khodr and Joe Jaeger are also invested) actually had to have their arms twisted to even offer that much.  At one point they had proposed to buy their way out of the affordable set aside requirement altogether by paying into a "homeownership fund" presumably to help people buy homes far away from these apartments.  Then-councilmember Cantrell really liked this idea, in fact.

It's an important point to consider especially now that we've taken up the task of developing a citywide "inclusionary zoning" policy. One option discussed at a recent City Council meeting would be based on an "incentive" model that could end up looking very much like the scheme Torres has carved out for himself on the Greenway.  This mayor and City Council keep hoping they can combat the housing crisis by helping real estate oligarchs build nice things for rich people. Moving them away from that thought is going to be a heavy lift.

That lift is going to be all the more heavy if people like Torres don't have to answer any questions about this stuff.  Sidney is gonna be okay no matter what happens
The reason I’ve started looking at buying iconic bars and locations is because it’s a proven fact that when the economy goes to crap, people still go to drink. Iconic bars with iconic names, especially if you have a live music permit.
Maybe we need to start thinking about what the crap economy plan is for the rest of us.  Besides just drinking, that is. Maybe that's what the "lifestyle center" is for.