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Repeating History 

Levee board consolidation is the hottest issue going these days, but it's been done before. Will it work better this time around?

Despite the fact that Hurricane Katrina left an imprint on nearly every aspect of life in south Louisiana, the public has enthusiastically espoused — through petitions and demonstrations — a singular, one-size-fits-all solution to the unparalleled devastation: consolidating the state's levee districts.

While it might be the first organized policy effort on the topic ever undertaken, the concept is in no way new. In fact, the levee districts that protect -- and sometimes perplex -- residents today were formed under a massive umbrella of consolidation more than 100 years ago.

During the 1890s, the state formed four multi-parish levee districts, including Atchafalaya Basin, Pontchartrain, Lafourche Basin and Orleans. Those districts didn't gain real power and momentum until after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It was a Darwinian structure, with smaller parishes paying tax dollars into an operation that yielded results only for the power brokers involved.

As a result, several smaller systems gradually broke off over the years to form the array of districts that presently exist. This independence allowed communities to control their own destiny, but it also gave birth to a bureaucratic scheme that has tainted a select few with corruption and political patronage.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco says levee board consolidation will be of utmost importance during her 12-day special session next month, but some lawmakers and political observers are wondering if her plan, as well as others to be proposed, will merely force Louisiana to repeat a piece of its own history and cause it to overlook more pressing problems.

There's already some evidence that a consolidated levee district operating within modern state government faces its share of challenges. The Pontchartrain Levee District has the largest parish membership of any district dealing with local property taxes, which is how most get their money. It covers six parishes and seven municipalities along the east bank of the Mississippi River, from St. Charles to East Baton Rouge.

Steve Wilson, president of the board, says geographic grudges have forced it to keep at least one project going in each parish just to move things along at an acceptable pace. If he had his druthers, Wilson says he would prefer to work with fewer parishes, thus avoiding the perpetual power struggle.

"I think regionalization and consolidation can work, but every project has to be common to everyone involved, which is very difficult to do," he says.

For the past century in Louisiana, this is the reason several local districts have been breaking off from the original big four.

Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes branched off and created their own districts during the '60s and '80s. That produced an independent tax base that was used to bolster Port Fourchon, a strategic location for oil and gas work in the Gulf of Mexico. An entire economy was built around it and today the region enjoys some of the lowest unemployment figures in the state.

"We were sending all of our money up there and getting nothing in return," says Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Democrat from Bourg. "If we were lumped in with anyone again, we would be left out of everything just like in the past."

In 1980, a new district was created for the western side of Jefferson Parish by Sen. Chris Ullo, a Harvey Democrat, out of the original big four configuration. For all the tax money the area contributed to the Lafourche Basin District, he says they only received "inconsistent" grass cutting in return.

"It took us a long time to get where we are now with our tax base and we're just a year away from getting the floodgates we wanted," he says.

Many lawmakers believe the focus should solely be on the Orleans Levee District. After all, it is the biggest, with its $23 million budget and 130 miles of levee systems. It's also the most controversial, with former members awarding contracts to relatives and staff mysteriously being fired.

But Orleans isn't alone in the whipping. Indictments have rained down on other districts over the years. Lawmakers are blamed for playing too heavy a political hand in the appointment process. And therein lies the rub: Consolidation may do very little, if anything, to address these internal and external problems.

"I think changing something's structure through consolidation is not a panacea for every ill that we have," says Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit group that monitors the activities of state government. "But I think there is a lot of value in looking at things on a regional basis, like consolidation would do."

Erwin admits that the issue is now a policy juggernaut, and anyone opposing it must welcome political death with open arms. But it certainly seems cyclical, he adds. Louisiana is once again heading back towards consolidation, with a natural disaster fresh on people's minds.

Once the memory fades, however, will local priorities take over again and fracture the system? Will history be repeated, causing the coming consolidation to mirror the massive structure of yesteryear that eventually gave way to localization?

"I think there's always a possibility," Erwin says. "That's just human nature."

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