Nagin Wants to Sell New Orleans Airport to Louisiana

BATON ROUGE -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Monday he wants the governor to place more emphasis in the state budget on the city's recovery and would like to sell the Louis Armstrong International Airport to the state.

In a wide-ranging address to the Baton Rouge Press Club, Nagin also said he would like to see the state's much-criticized Road Home rebuilding program reduce the role of its chief administrator, ICF Consulting Group Inc., to one of a data processor. The program should use banks to disburse the program's federal money for compensating homeowners with storm-damaged houses, he said.

"The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, we are linked in many, many different ways," Nagin said. "So whatever happens in the state affects the city, and whatever happens in the city affects the state at the end of the day."

The Legislature will take up the state budget in its April 30 session. Using a windfall of tax revenue largely from post-storm recovery activity, Blanco has submitted a proposed budget that is heavy on education spending and government employee pay raises statewide, but relies mainly on pass-through federal money to address the city's recovery.

Nagin said he is "optimistic" about the upcoming legislative session and about whether Blanco will support his proposals.

"The governor's in a very powerful position. She can make adjustments this legislative session as she sees fit," Nagin said.

Recovery high points

Nagin outlined the city's recovery effort and said that in January, 88 percent of the prestorm sales tax base had returned. He said $1 billion in commercial building permits and $3.9 billion in residential building permits have been filed.

The city now has a plan and a new chief planner and is ready to put it into action, he said.

"We've gone through so much planning, and I'm sick of planning," Nagin said.

The city is making strides on basic services such as sanitation, he said.

"We have Disney-like services in the city of New Orleans, and we're cleaning up round the clock, and the French Quarter has never looked better," Nagin said.

He said that for every $5 billion in recovery spending, the state coffers reap $250 million. Nagin said recovery spending will reach $60 billion to $100 billion in the next five to seven years.

"We're in a very unique position right now," Nagin said. "It's my thesis . . . this is the time for us to invest aggressively in our infrastructure around the state. It's time for us to take some action and change some of the fundamental problems that we've had with our infrastructure, with education, with health care."

Road Home 'flawed'

He said the state's Road Home program is "fundamentally flawed in several ways." He wants the state to help offer incentives to get people to move to higher ground in the city.

He also wants to change the role of ICF, which has been administering a program that has released only a small fraction of the federal dollars available. ICF would be reduced to handling data-processing tasks, "and then we quickly move to allow the banks and the financial institutions to process these loans as quickly as possible."

"And we issue lump-sum payments as aggressively as we can," Nagin said. "I don't buy the notion that homeowners in any part of our state can't make an intelligent decision if we give them lump-sum payments."

Bob Taylor, a senior vice president with the Louisiana Bankers Association, said banks are willing to take the lead in working with their customers on these issues and that the banks have the expertise.

"I believe the banks in the New Orleans area are willing and ready to take on more responsibility in seeing the Road Home program successfully complete its mission," Taylor said. "As the details of the changes become clearer, then we'll have a better idea of what those new responsibilities may be."

Airport sale, expansion

Nagin has said he would like to sell the airport for the right price to any interested buyer, but Monday he took a new turn and recommended selling the airport to the state to lay the groundwork for an expansion that would create a regional airport.

"I think it's a better option if we could somehow figure out a way for the state to step in, provide the city of New Orleans with some kind of revenue stream that's adequate compensation, and then we turn that airport into something special, that rivals O'Hare (in Chicago) or DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth)," Nagin said. "You can't get it cheap, but we're willing to talk with you about that particular initiative."

Rail line pushed

Nagin said a rail link on existing train lines could create a commuter corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, capitalizing on an "Interstate 10 economy." The rail line could come sooner than a more expensive, long-term proposal that some have made for a new light rail system, he said.

Nagin asked for state support to improve 12 miles of city streets as evacuation routes and said he supports other state road projects to improve storm evacuations.

Based on an existing state program to encourage film industry investment in Louisiana, Nagin wants a state incentive program to assist New Orleans theaters in attracting stage shows that are preparing to open on Broadway in New York.

To make Louisiana more competitive with Texas and other Southeastern states, the mayor recommended phasing out the state's personal income tax over five years and moving more quickly to phase out taxes on business investment.

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