Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not mince words when he presented his proposed 2014 operating budget for the City of New Orleans on Oct. 15. "Budgeting is not for the faint of heart," he said. He's right, particularly in light of the fiscal challenges that confront City Hall these days. On one level, Landrieu's budget proposal contained some good news: The city will collect almost $10 million more in 2014 than it expects to take in this year. Then again, expenses are rising at a much faster rate, particularly as a result of two expensive consent decrees and a judgment against the city for more than $17 million in firefighter pensions. Not for the faint of heart, indeed.
Overall, the mayor's suggested spending plan for next year was a mixed bag. While violent crime is increasing nationally, New Orleans' murder rate — for years the highest in the nation — is actually down 24 percent for the first three quarters of this year compared to the same period in 2012. Our murder rate is still way too high, but if the current trend continues, we may finally be on the path to reducing violence in our city. The mayor credits several programs, all of which will see increased funding next year under his budget proposal — along with the Police Department, the Fire Department, EMS, the Recreation Department and Municipal Court, where misdemeanor cases are handled.
Citizens who want public safety funded to the fullest will have little to complain about with the mayor's proposed budget. He calls for increased funding to train 150 new police officers, purchasing 100 new police cars and a body camera for every officer, and a $300,000 marketing campaign to recruit new cops. He also proposes to fund the DA's office and Criminal District Court at 100 percent of their 2012 levels.
Now for the bad news: At least a dozen departments will see cuts ranging from 2 percent (Public Works) to nearly 30 percent (City Planning). Some of those cuts can be explained away as efficiencies, but here again the mayor did not mince words. "We are always working to do more with less, but in many instances we will have to do less with less," Landrieu said.
Of the three biggest challenges — the judicially mandated New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) consent decree, the pending Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) consent decree and the firefighters' pension judgment — only the police consent decree is "funded" by Landrieu's proposed budget. While that sets off alarms in some quarters, the truth is only the police consent decree has a fixed price tag right now. It is estimated to cost about $55 million over the next five years, and many of the immediate costs (such as improved technology and better equipment) have been woven into next year's operating budget as part of ongoing efforts to improve policing.
Funding the prison consent decree and the firefighters' pension judgment will present challenges all their own, but for now neither is final. Sheriff Marlin Gusman has signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, but the city has not yet signed it. Moreover, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over that case, has not yet put a price tag on the decree — nor has he determined how much the city and sheriff must pay, respectively. The judge wisely has allowed the New Orleans City Council's budget hearing process, which begins this week, to provide a public airing of all the issues related to the cost of operating a constitutional jail. The council has scheduled three special meetings dedicated solely to Gusman's budget.
Meanwhile, the city is appealing the adverse judgment in the firefighters' lawsuit. That buys the mayor and the council some time, but not much. Landrieu and the council will have to put out that fiscal fire sooner or later. The mayor has pushed a plan to overhaul the firefighters' pension system to make it less expensive — and more in line with other public pensions. He has had some success, but more needs to be done. Eventually, the city will have to pay what it owes firefighters, who years ago agreed to take less salary in exchange for a better pension plan.
The mayor also presented his proposed $247 million capital budget for brick-and-mortar projects. Those projects include improvements to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, money for parks and recreation, a new 2nd District police station and other projects across the city.
Now the budget is in the City Council's hands. Overall, despite having to do less with less, the city is on a good fiscal path.