Mayor Mitch Landrieu and members of the New Orleans City Council held their annual public meetings in each of the five council districts over the last two weeks, and several common themes emerged. Not surprisingly, the two topics that came up most often in audience questions and comments related to the city's seemingly intractable post-Hurricane Katrina problems — crime and blight. The whole point of the meetings, which Landrieu deserves credit for initiating as mayor, is to give the mayor and council members a dose of what the voters think — and what they expect in the way of budget priorities. Of course, the conversations are two-way; the mayor also uses the meetings as an opportunity to let voters know what his team has been doing and to remind voters of City Hall's many commitments ... and its limited resources.
Landrieu's previous budgets have been responsible, both in terms of planning for the future and whittling down the debt left by the previous administration. At the District A meeting, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin told the crowd that the Landrieu administration currently spends about $40 million less per year than former Mayor Ray Nagin's team was spending in 2009.
Even with roughly $500 million to spend, Landrieu continually reminded the crowds at the meetings that budgeting is "a zero-sum game." That is, for every additional dollar that gets spent on one department, a dollar must to be taken away from another.
On the nagging issue of blight, at least, Landrieu's office had good news. The administration's goal of either remediating or tearing down 10,000 blighted structures, which was announced in October 2010 with a target date of 2013, seems to be on track — and maybe even ahead of schedule. No doubt this offers little comfort to many in parts of town (particularly eastern New Orleans) where blight is still an epidemic, and the mayor got an earful of complaints at the district meetings. But, overall, the city's attack on blight is on course.
In fact, a report last week by the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC) stated that "at a minimum, the city seems to be nearly on target for reaching its goal — and may even be doing quite a bit better than meeting its target."
The GNOCDC report noted that New Orleans no longer holds the dubious honor of being America's most blighted city. At least two other decaying urban centers — Detroit and Flint, Mich. — now have higher percentages of dilapidated houses than does New Orleans. Overall, according to the report, New Orleans reduced its blighted housing stock from 53,111 units in September 2011 to 43,680 in March 2012, for a total blight index of 21 percent. The report also suggests that City Hall adopt and implement a comprehensive blight tracking system to get a more accurate handle on the extent of blighted buildings in New Orleans.
We agree, because blight goes hand-in-hand with the city's other major challenge: crime.
As for crime, the city faces a tough challenge in trying to find money for NOPD, the district attorney's office and the public defenders' office — all while accommodating the substantial costs associated with the federal consent decree. Figures the mayor's office provided to Gambit earlier this month show the cost of the consent decree to be $55 million spread over five years — and many cities that have operated under a decree have found it more expensive than originally thought. The decree also could extend well beyond five years.
This year, Police Chief Ronal Serpas got pretty much the budget he wanted, and earlier this month he was able to graduate the department's first class of recruits since 2010. Other arms of the criminal justice system weren't as lucky. In February, because of budget constraints, the public defenders' office laid off 21 lawyers. Several were rehired in June, but the workload remains large — in large part because public defenders actively seek out potential clients at Criminal Court as opposed to waiting to see if judges assign them cases — and the office is likely to seek additional funding for 2013.
On the prosecutorial side, Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro has argued that his office is the most underfunded in the state, and he says he has the numbers to back that up. Cannizzaro wants more money in 2013.
Landrieu must present his proposed 2013 budget by Oct. 15, and the council must adopt a budget no later than Dec. 1. No doubt many people will offer suggestions and revisions, but the zero-sum nature of budgeting won't change one iota.