With Demise of Orleans Levee Board, Owner of Lakefront Airport Unclear

A legislative battle may be shaping up over how to best manage the vast real estate holdings of the now-defunct Orleans Levee Board -- including Lakefront Airport, two marinas and miles of valuable waterfront property -- which were shifted under temporary control of the governor after the creation of two regional superboards now charged strictly with flood protection.

State Sen. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero, said last week that he'd like to create a new board to handle the lakefront assets that would be made up of members picked by the governor, with input from legislators. Shepherd, who said he has broad support among the New Orleans delegation, is working on a bill to do just that for the upcoming session. But Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, said a consensus among legislators has not emerged, and he'll likely file his own bill.

The Levee Board's holdings were shifted to the state Division of Administration when the agency was dissolved Dec. 31.

"They have very important nonflood assets that were acquired by the citizens of Orleans Parish," Shepherd said. "The citizens paid for them, and they should come back to the citizens' ownership."

Shepherd's idea, or one like it, has been proposed once before by the Levee Board itself in its final days.

In September, as voters were poised to approve levee board consolidation, the board's president, Mike McCrossen, wrote to Blanco advocating the creation of a nonprofit board to manage its property.

As Shepherd is doing now, McCrossen argued that the Levee Board's portfolio should be managed locally rather than from Baton Rouge. But Blanco never responded to the proposal, which was seen as dead on arrival.

Detractors, however, are concerned that Shepherd's vision could turn out to be a lot like the old Levee Board: a politically wired agency that controls a lot of land and wastes a lot of money.

"The idea was to get politics out of the flood-control game and to get assets best managed by those who can manage them," said Jay Lapeyre of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, which strongly backed the consolidation. "All we want under the flood control authority is flood issues. We don't want them to be distracted."

The hope of the business leaders is that the land holdings will be farmed out to existing agencies best equipped to deal with them, Lapeyre said.

For instance, City Park could manage some of the open space, while the New Orleans Aviation Board could oversee Lakefront Airport. Revenue could be used both for flood control and to pay for services like grass-cutting and police, he said.

"The approach the Business Council supports is one that takes politics out of every aspect of this as much as possible and does not create a new entity to manage the nonflood assets," Lapeyre said.

Murray said that while it would be preferable for all members of the city's delegation to start out on the same page, a consensus seems unlikely to develop before the Legislature convenes April 30.

As a result, Murray said he expects to file a bill that will compete with Shepherd's. There could be others as well, he said.

The "central difference" between the proposals will be whether they create a new entity to oversee Levee Board assets. Murray, like Lapeyre, would prefer not to do so.

"My own preference would be to find a way to have City Park manage the assets," Murray said. "They take care of a lot of green space now. Their assets go right up to the lake. That's what I think would work. Some people agree; some people disagree."

The creation of a new board wouldn't go over well with the public, in Murray's view.

"The public just voted to get rid of an entity and create a new flood authority," he said. "I think it would make better sense to use something that's already in existence."

The hope of voters in creating the new superboards was to allow the agencies to have a laserlike focus on flood protection, rather than getting sidetracked with land-development schemes, as the old Orleans Levee Board often did.

To that end, the consolidation law approved by the Legislature called for the state Division of Administration to take control of any land or equipment unrelated to flood control that belonged to the old levee boards.

The division in turn has the ability to sell any or all of the assets, or to contract with public or private entities to manage them.

But who will manage nonflood assets isn't the only question lawmakers will confront.

Debates are likely to loom over the assignment of levee board debts and revenue streams, as well as the definition of a nonflood asset.

While the latter might seem simple, Murray said a protracted discussion ensued recently, until it was finally decided that the Lake Pontchartrain seawall is a flood-protection asset.

Tom Jackson, president of the new Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said he doubts the new flood-control board will take a position on which way to go.

"We're just trying to get the nonflood assets managed outside so we can focus on flood protection," he said. "Whether it's the Division of Administration or some authority set up by the Legislature, I don't know whether we should really concern ourselves, as long as it's being done and done properly."

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