By Ariella Cohen, staff writer – In the Garden District, a decaying Prytania Street church is on the market for $1.8 million after years of neglect by its owner. In eastern New Orleans, Lincoln Beach lies fallow, tides from Lake Pontchartrain washing over its debris-strewn shore. Still farther east, rusting roller coasters hover over Chef Menteur Highway, the Six Flags rides frozen since hurricane Katrina. Aside from their derelict states, these three sites will gain another commonalty tomorrow when the City Council considers whether to again set aside money for them as part of this year’s $600 million, 1,466-project spending package.
Each of these projects had been approved by the City Council sometime in the past. But because the administration did not commit to spending the money last year, the council must reappropriate the money. In some cases, it appears from the dated funding sources that the money has been rolled over annually for several years – or even decades.
A vote of approval would let the Nagin administration start spending on any or all of the projects, as the mayor sees fit. Some of these line-item appropriations are as vague as $4 million in state grants from 1998 for something called “Teachers Pet Improvements.” Others, such as a $1 million appropriation for the defunct Jazzland Amusement Park, are for initiatives that clearly should no longer appear on the budget. Most troubling to communities are millions of dollars in appropriations for city playgrounds, pools, recreational centers and amenities for the disabled with set asides dating to before Katrina.
“There is a desperate need for educational and recreational resources in our neighborhoods,” said Tilman Hardy, founder of Leonidas House and president of Pension Town Neighborhood Association. “To see money going unspent year after year is a tragedy.”
A “Recovery in Progress” sign erected by a city contractor has fallen across the overgrown grass surrounding the Gert Town Pool. With its broken roof and stagnant, algae-crusted water, the shuttered New Orleans Recreational Department facility embodies the conundrum facing many of the projects on the list.
If the council approves the rollover at its meeting Thursday, $600,000 in federal Community Block Development Grants for the renovation of the pool will be added to the 2010 budget. Yet in an e-mail sent to the City Council Wednesday, a Nagin administration official said the city is now negotiating the pool’s damage with FEMA, and plans to return the leased facility to its owner, Xavier University. Until FEMA declares the pool more than 50 percent damaged, “funding does not exist for any new facility that would include an indoor pool,” according to the e-mail from Julie Schwam Harris, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations.
If you ask Council member Shelley Midura, the disconnect between the project as it appears on budget documents and its reality raises concerns about oversight. “The council should not be reappropriating blindly,” she said.
Similarly, the rollover includes $66,628 in bond funding from 2007 for the Hollygrove Senior Center, yet no decision has been made on whether the center will be rebuilt, according to the e-mail from Schwam Harris. Another appropriation that appears on the list to be voted on is for a regional medical complex that is no longer being developed. The set aside of $440,559 in bonds dates back to 1999. “Funding will be reprogrammed,” Schwam Harris wrote in response to City Council questioning of the curious earmark.
Other appropriations appear to be rotting on the fiscal vine. In 2001 and 2002, a combined total of $810,730 in bond revenue was set aside for the rehabilitation of Lincoln Beach. Another $4.2 million in state aid was also set aside for the beach, a historic stretch of city-owned property that was open to African Americans during the Jim Crow era of segregation. The state appropriation has since expired, Louisiana Recovery Authority spokeswoman Christina Stephens said.
Municipal budgets are speculative documents, built of projected revenue from taxes, bonds, state and federal sources and a host of miscellaneous other sources. The rollover is no different. This means that while $600 million worth of spending exists on paper, some portion of that money will never reach the city’s coffers. Even so, the size of the rollover is eye-opening. For some context, look no farther than the annual budget for 2010 agreed on by the mayor and the council last month. That budget, at $462 million, is about 20 percent smaller than the $600 million rollover.
This rollover dance is not unique to New Orleans. New York City, for example, will roll over a third of its capital budget in any given year, says the director of the city’s Independent Budget Office, Doug Turetsky. What is unique in the case of New Orleans this year, however, is the sheer amount of city revenue being recommitted to outstanding projects – and the number of years some appropriations remain on paper. Turetsky remembers New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg clearing the city’s budget a few years back, purging old projects from the rollover. Admittedly, that kind of cleanup has not happened in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“Not every line is scrubbed,” Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cynthia Sylvain-Lear told the City Council at the last meeting on Jan. 21. The city could not dedicate limited resources to cleaning the budget at a time when energy had to be focused on the recovery, she explained. “We are pushing hard to get projects out to bid. What you are saying is you want us to wait,” she said, adding that the administration is “constantly cleaning the capital budget.”
Sylvain-Lear wanted the council to approve the list at the last meeting so the administration would not have to wait two weeks until Thursday’s meeting to start spending.
When pressed at that last meeting to name specific projects that would be hurt if the council waited another two weeks to vote, Sylvain-Lear stumbled.
“I do not have a specific list of the projects will be delayed,” she said. One day before Thursday’s meeting, the list was sent to council members.
On it were several projects that are already complete.
This story ran as a joint investigation on Fox 8 WVUE. The newscast is embedded below: