The Southside Economic Development District gained the Monroe City Council’s approval earlier this week to begin seeking funding for a 25-year project proposal that will focus new housing developments in southern Monroe.

The City Council voted unanimously to support SEDD’s 25-year plan during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, following more than an hour of discussion in which SEDD officials and City Council members spoke loudly over one another and one citizen was escorted out of the meeting for causing a disturbance.

Neither SEDD’s proposal nor any of its officials outlined specific revenue sources to pay for any housing developments or other projects in its 25-year plan.

After the meeting, SEDD Board Vice Chairman Marty Campbell told The Ouachita Citizen that SEDD planned to use revenues from the district’s hotel occupancy tax as well as $75,000 in appropriated state funds and other unidentified private funding sources.

Campbell admitted the money available now was insufficient to tackle a housing development. But it was enough to get them started, he said.

It was unclear whether “housing developments” fit the “capital improvement projects” criteria established when voters approved SEDD’s hotel occupancy tax and how its revenues could be used.

Last year, Monroe Mayor Friday Ellis proposed a cooperative endeavor agreement that could result in SEDD receiving $1 million in tax revenues each year. Under the proposed agreement, SEDD could collect up to $500,000 in sales tax revenues and up to $500,000 in property tax revenues through a newly established tax increment financing (TIF) district within SEDD’s boundaries.

City officials confirmed after the meeting that Ellis has not yet signed any agreement with SEDD in connection to the proposed TIF district.

During Tuesday’s meeting, SEDD Board Chairman Tony Little first addressed the City Council by admitting SEDD recently had to get its “house in order,” an apparent reference to SEDD’s firing and later re-hiring of Charles Theus as executive director. Last year, the state Legislative Auditor’s office also released an audit report that showed SEDD was spending revenues from the hotel occupancy tax on routine operations, not on capital improvement projects as required.

“If you’ve read the newspaper, we fought, we fussed,” Little said. “We have more issues in Districts 3, 4, and 5 than we have money.”

City Council member Gretchen Ezernack questioned whether SEDD’s plan was specific enough to serve as a reliable plan for projects. For example, Ezernack pointed out some of SEDD’s proposed projects were already being undertaken by the city or other entities.

“This plan to me is very, very unwieldy,” Ezernack said. “I don’t know where you will start.”

Ezernack noted that SEDD proposed a project plan in 2003 but never started work on the projects. She also pointed out SEDD proposed a project plan in 2013 but never started work on those projects either.

“What is the plan to get started?” Ezernack said. “We want you to get started.”

Little’s tone toward Ezernack and other City Council members was short. At one time, he asked a City Council member to speak more loudly (on an amplified speaker system). At another time, he noted certain statements made by City Council members “for the record” and snapped, “Next question.” When City Council members questioned the plan, Little often stood by and jerked his head, left and right.

“Ms. Ezernack, I think we talked over an hour in a very frank way,” Little said. “Can you tell me your precise question?”

When asked to identify the focus of SEDD’s 25-year plan, Little said, “So, this is the thought, OK. I’m a straight shooter. It is the board’s intention to start with housing. But we believe we can walk in two puddles at the same time. We think we can build houses and fight crime at the same time. If we do not get the housing piece correct, if we do not get Districts 3, 4, and 5 places where they want to live.

“Does that answer your question? Housing, housing and crime. We cannot stop crime. The Monroe Police Department cannot stop crime. We can do things tangibly to eliminate the opportunities for crime based on scientific studies.”

Theus, SEDD’s executive director, confirmed SEDD would focus its work and spending on housing projects.

“We told that to Ms. Woods about being a neighborhood developer,” said Theus, referring to City Council member Juanita Woods.

Woods confirmed she had engaged in such a discussion with Theus.

City Council member Kema Dawson echoed many of Ezernack’s concerns.

“There are some things in the plan that are duplication of what the city is doing or has already done,” Dawson said. “There are some partners who are already doing what you put in this budget.”

Assistant City Attorney Brandon Creekbaum informed informed the City Council it could either adopt SEDD’s plan, reject the plan or adopt the plan with modifications as council members saw fit.

Theus and Little disagreed.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding,” Theus said. “The law doesn’t allow—it does not allow you guys to say you cannot do a project.”

As Theus made the argument that the City Council could not reject the plan presented, someone in the audience said, “Come on, preacher.”

“I’m really concerned about the funding,” Dawson said. “If that grant is not available for you, where are you going to get that money?”

Woods defended SEDD’s presentation and asked Theus whether SEDD’s 25-year plan was a “living document” and could be changed as needed.

“Yes,” Theus said.

Dawson questioned whether the City Council should approve a plan that could result in audits, fines or investigations for illegal activity.

“Right now, the plan has some flaws,” Dawson said. “Right now, you’re telling us to approve the flaws and we fix them later. That’s not how we operate.”

The City Council ultimately voted to adopt SEDD’s plan with only one modification: No local tax revenues could be used in SEDD’s proposed micro-lending program.

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