Mayor Mitch Landrieu's second inaugural address was more pep rally than policy, but that's how most inaugural speeches go. While his speech did not go deep into specifics, the mayor did caution New Orleanians that the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina is far from over.
"Be assured, the fight is not over; the battle for the future of New Orleans goes on," Landrieu said.
Indeed, that fight rages in all corners of the city and in Baton Rouge, where state lawmakers are stifling some of the mayor's attempts to put several revenue-raising options on the City Council's table for discussion.
New Orleans faces some huge fiscal obligations that have been postponed for decades, but which are now at City Hall's doorstep. The city must pay for two expensive federal consent decrees — one for the New Orleans Police Department and one for Orleans Parish Prison — and a costly judgment in favor of the firefighters' pension fund.
Long put off by previous mayors and councils, those obligations are due now. They come to nearly $40 million a year. Landrieu is asking the Louisiana Legislature to let New Orleans voters decide how best to meet those obligations. Lawmakers have not responded favorably.
A House committee killed a proposed cigarette tax — twice — and the House has shelved a proposed additional hotel-motel tax. The only viable option that remains is a potential property tax increase, which Landrieu wants to dedicate to police and fire protection. That millage would have to be approved by voters, both statewide and in New Orleans, because it would not be subject to the homestead exemption. Had the cigarette and hotel-motel taxes been authorized by lawmakers, they too would have been subject to voter approval.
"We are at a crossroads," Landrieu said in his speech. That's a well-worn metaphor, but an apt one in this instance. The mayor said if no additional revenue is forthcoming, the city faces drastic cuts in services and hundreds of layoffs.
Landrieu cited many examples of New Orleans bouncing back after Katrina — a reduction in blight, reforms in public education, improving NORD and other city agencies — but he also noted that City Hall and voters face even tougher challenges in the next four years. They include having to make painful fiscal choices as well as the ongoing challenge of reducing violence.
There's a tendency for people to compartmentalize challenges and tasks, to put them into metaphorical boxes and stow them away, particularly when we think we have addressed the problem or met the challenge. Truth is, running a city and keeping it viable is more like tending a lawn than storing furniture. You can put furniture away and pretty much assume that it will be fine. But you can't just mow the lawn once and think it's done for good. So it is with a city; new challenges will always present themselves.
Four years ago, Landrieu challenged the City Council to roll forward the city's millage rate to pay for NORD and other vital services. He and council members also trimmed the city budget significantly. Many folks probably assumed that we had solved our fiscal dilemma. Now a whole new crop of fiscal problems has arisen.
The mayor and the new City Council once again will have to make some tough choices, as will the voters.