Mayor Mitch Landrieu has had no shortage of problems to solve since he won his historic election in February. The BP oil catastrophe occurred less than two weeks before his inauguration, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad scandal erupted less than four months into his administration, and he inherited a police department in shambles as well as a mounting budget deficit from his predecessor. To his credit, Landrieu tackled each of those crises head-on, leveling with citizens at every turn. Last week, the mayor outlined with equal candor his proposed 2011 operating budget, which includes an $8-a-month hike in the city sanitation fee and an 8.75-mill "roll forward" in the city's general millage — back to its 2007 level.
Now Landrieu must sell his proposed hikes to the City Council. We think he already has made a good case.
There is never a good time to raise taxes or increase fees. Such moves are never popular. They are either necessary or not, justified or not. Oftentimes, political leaders seek to raise taxes or fees to maintain existing levels of service. In this case, Landrieu proposes significant improvements in city services in exchange for modest tax increases. His proposed budget doubles the annual allotment for the long-suffering New Orleans Recreation Department, something he promised if voters approved a charter amendment to reform NORD. He also has announced a long-overdue citywide blight reduction plan that will take down 10,000 eyesores in the next three years.
On other fronts, Landrieu's budget would dedicate more resources to pothole repairs, street lighting, drainage improvements, housing and lot inspections, and better customer service at City Hall (including live, local operators to answer the phones). Above all, the mayor and New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas are already working to make NOPD more responsive and more effective at protecting citizens and solving crimes.
"We are going to hold people accountable," Landrieu says. "Every line item in the budget is tied to outcomes. If programs do not deliver, they will be cut. If employees are not hitting their marks, they will be replaced. For too long, we have overpaid only to be underserved. That's why this budget focuses on performance and funds results."
The promises contained in the mayor's first budget represent more than lofty aspirations. In less than six months on the job, Landrieu has scrubbed the current city budget to eliminate former Mayor Ray Nagin's $80 million legacy deficit. He made the hard choice to furlough city workers — including himself and his top staff — effectively cutting everyone's salary by 10 percent. He significantly reduced the city's fleet of take-home cars, extended City Hall's business hours until 6 p.m. to make it more accessible, rewrote the city's procurement policy to make it fairer and more transparent, and his new budget eliminates Nagin's wasteful, corrupt and dysfunctional crime camera program. In short, Landrieu has proved himself to be a good steward of taxpayers' money.
The mayor's proposed budget also reflects citizens' priorities. In August, Landrieu and his department heads held town hall-style meetings in every corner of the city to let citizens speak out about what they want from city government. They did not hold back, and the mayor's budget reflects that sentiment.
Now the ball is in the council's court. As promised, the mayor delivered his budget two weeks ahead of the charter-imposed deadline of Nov. 1. The council will begin budget hearings Monday, Oct. 25, and continue them through Nov. 19. That will give council members more time than usual to meet the Dec. 1 budget adoption deadline set by the City Charter.
No doubt some will oppose the mayor's revenue proposals on the usual anti-tax, anti-government grounds. We urge the council to take a longer view of the mayor's proposals. He has made a strong case for his budget. The increased sanitation fee simply reflects the city's actual cost of garbage collection and landfilling, and the millage increase merely restores the rate to what it was in 2007. These proposals strike us as modest and reasonable. Considering the cuts and improvements already made to the current-year budget — and the additional enhancements citizens demand going forward — the council's choice may not look easy, but it should be clear.