Baker facing lean times as boom times pass

BAKER (AP) — The Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 produced an economic boom for Baker as thousands of south Louisiana residents fled north to escape the storm’s catastrophic flooding.
At one point, Mayor Harold Rideau said, there wasn’t a house or apartment available to buy or rent anywhere in the city.
The people flooding in spent money, which meant more sales tax revenue and healthy budget surpluses for the city.
But what Rideau describes as the three “golden years” following Katrina are long gone and, with them, most of the budget surplus.
That’s left city leaders with the difficult task of cutting expenses and scrambling for resources.
Baker at one point had a general fund surplus of $9 million, but that’s down to $900,000, Rideau said. The reserve was tapped in recent years because the city was spending about $1 million more than it was taking in, he said.
The economic landscape looks much different in 2013 than it did during the boom time in the first years after Katrina when displaced victims scrambled for housing wherever they could find it.
“Everything was filled up. Nothing was available,” Rideau said.
In addition to all the people buying and renting homes in Baker, the federal government set up a mobile home park to temporarily house New Orleans and other south Louisiana-area residents who had no place to go after the hurricane struck in August 2005.
There were about 600 Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in Baker’s Renaissance Village, providing close to 9,000 new residents to the city.
The picture is much different now, Rideau said, noting there hasn’t been a new subdivision built in Baker for several years.
The financial struggle has been difficult for Baker as it copes with flat sales taxes, a deep recession and a costly annual hike in the cost of police and fire department retirements and benefits.
“I pray for Baker. I really do. I’ve been active here for 53 years, but we’ve had some tough breaks,” said Monteal Carson-Margolis, director of the Baker Chamber of Commerce.
Rideau and Carson-Margolis said the problem is young professionals are not moving to Baker. Much of the city’s population is either older or the working poor.
Rideau and Carson-Margolis blame the struggling school system for not attracting new residents.
The most recent state assessment for schools rated Baker Heights and Bakerfield elementary schools an “F.”
Schools Superintendent Ulysses Joseph did not return calls seeking comment. But School Board member Doris Alexander said she agrees with Rideau and Carson-Margolis.
“When the schools are good, people come. And that’s a problem here,” Alexander said.
When asked if Baker could end up bankrupt because of its financial problems, Rideau said no.
“We will not go broke. The budget will be balanced. I promise you that,” Rideau said.

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