The New Orleans City Council is on track to adopt the city's 2011 operating budget by the charter-imposed deadline of Dec. 1. Fortunately, that's about the only similarity between this year's budgeting process and those under former Mayor Ray Nagin. Starting this past summer, Mayor Mitch Landrieu changed the executive budgeting process significantly by conducting a series of town hall meetings in all corners of the city, bringing with him a full complement of executive staff and department heads. Landrieu and his team listened to citizens' concerns and incorporated them into the proposed 2011 budget. Equally important, the mayor kept his campaign promise to deliver his budget to the City Council early. That gave the council and its staff two extra weeks to review the mayor's revenue and expenditure proposals, conduct budget hearings and consider suggested revisions. That was time well spent.
As submitted by the mayor, the proposed budget includes an $8-a-month hike in the city sanitation fee and an 8.74-mill "roll forward" in the city's general millage — back to its 2007 level. There has been some citizen pushback to the millage hike, but not so much on the sanitation fee.
As we noted in this space right after Landrieu submitted his budget, there is never a good time to raise taxes or increase fees. In this instance, the mayor has proposed significant improvements in city services in exchange for the tax increases. Citizens thus will "get more for paying more" — rather than just paying more for the same mediocre level of services. Landrieu's proposed budget doubles the annual allotment for NORD, enhances blight reduction, and dedicates more resources to pothole repairs, street lighting, drainage, housing and weeded lot inspections, as well as improved customer service at City Hall (including live telephone operators).
In his first six months in office, Landrieu laid a solid foundation for his proposals by eliminating Nagin's $80 million legacy deficit. He did this by making hard choices: furloughing city workers — including himself and his top staff — which effectively cut everyone's salary by 10 percent; reducing the city's fleet of take-home cars; rewriting the city's procurement policy to make it fairer and more transparent; and scrubbing Nagin's wasteful, corrupt and dysfunctional crime camera program. Despite those cuts, Landrieu extended City Hall's business hours until 6 p.m. to make it more accessible to citizens. These steps show that Landrieu has earned citizens' trust with taxpayers' money.
Now it's the council's turn.
To its credit, the council picked up where the mayor left off by poring over the budget and holding budget hearings around subject matters rather than individual departments. "This is real budgeting for outcomes," said one council member. We agree. No doubt the council will make some tweaks to the executive budget, both in the revenue structure and on the expenditure side.
As council members move closer to a final decision on the 2011 revenue and expense plan, we urge them to continue taking a "big picture" approach. Specifically, we hope they will keep in mind that an upward adjustment to the city's millage rate will impact — positively, in our view — future city budgets, particularly those after the next statewide property reassessment, which begins in January. We also believe the sanitation fee should reflect as closely as possible the actual cost of citywide garbage collection, even if that means raising it beyond the mayor's suggested threshold of $20.
On the expense side, we compliment the mayor for working hard to include citizen-driven priorities in this budget. To that we hope council members will add three items that need additional funding beyond what the mayor has proposed: animal control, the public defenders' office and the Tulane Tower learning center, which provides needed educational opportunities to young people who might otherwise become lost in the criminal justice system.
Finally, we urge the council to give citizens full advantage of the extra time afforded by the mayor's early budget submission — by posting their suggested revenue and expense revisions online before they are considered on Dec. 1, so that citizens can review and comment upon them. Overall, this year's budget process has been a refreshing break from the rancor and gridlock of past years. We hope that approach will continue.