By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer
Monday’s City Council budget hearing opened with a lively presentation by a singing and dancing youth group from Durban, South Africa, that had the mayor and council members literally dancing in the aisle.
The meeting that followed wasn’t quite as lively, though some might say a few departments came to sing for their supper. The topic for the day was how the city planned to address blighted properties.
First up was Jeff Hebert, director of blight policy and neighborhood revitalization. He said reducing blight would improve everything from “public safety to quality of life.”
Using what Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration calls “place-based revitalization,” Hebert outlined a goal of 100 demolitions a month. He emphasized that the decisions would be data driven, with “clear lines of accountability for accomplishing citywide blight eradication goals.”
The blight-weary council members were less than enthused.
“How will this plan be different?” asked Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, questioning who would care for the lot after the demolition.
She expressed frustration with the slow pace of the city’s Lot Next Door program putting property into the hands of those residents who have signed up. .
Those properties are in the hands of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the administration is pushing the agency to move the properties.
Kopplin segued into what he called the “Blight Next Door” effort, talking about moving those properties on to sheriff sales.
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Ann Duplessis laid out the path for repeat offenders.
“The first time I am nice, the second time we send you to municipal court and the third time could end up with jail time,” Duplessis said.
Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson pleaded with the administration to create policies that punish repeat offenders.
“Nothing we legislate is ever implemented,” she said. “People should end up in jail.”
Councilwoman Susan Guidry wanted to know what was to be done about city-owned blight.
Hebert didn’t dodge responsibility.
“We have to solve our own problem,” he said.
He said a recent survey of 55 city properties showed that 19 are out of compliance.
Department of Health
Wes Taylor, director of the Health Department, briefly appeared to present the health department’s portion of the code-enforcement initiative. The department plans to reduce environmental hazards through such means as draining and filling abandoned pools with dirt.
City Attorney Nanette Jolivette Brown presented the specific requests of the law department in its efforts to fight blight.
Jolivette Brown also said that one person would be devoted to sheriff sales and that the larger legal team will support the city’s efforts at reducing blight.
Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens spoke of the court as an underused resource in the efforts to fight blight. “We are excited and encouraged to be included in this program.”
Sens was recently in the news for his own issues with blight.
Sens spoke of the department’s ambitious plan to have blight cases moved through the legal system in 90 days.
Clarkson said this should be in the headlines because the idea of going to court will frighten people into compliance.
Mayor’s Office of Community Development
Tony Faciane, Director of Neighborhood Stabilization, said he has worked with agencies in the past that are poorly performing and many projects which have received allocation of funds will see these funds rescinded.
Hedge-Morrell expressed concerns that development takes place in neighborhoods that then experience issues.
“When you develop in a neighborhood where there have traditionally been homeowners there is nothing done to assimilate these [new] people, we have to make sure we don’t destroy neighborhoods.
“These places are going to look like you-know-what in a couple of years. We won’t even have what we had before.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head followed on Hedge-Morrell’s observation with questions about the location of subsidized rentals.
“In Central City we have an excess of rentals, and so instead of putting more product on the market we have to know what we are doing,” she said.
New Orleans Redevelopment Authority
Sticking with a theme of demolitions, NORA Executive Director Joyce Wilkerson said they intend to demolish more than 100 properties at an accelerated pace.
Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs
Charles Allen, the newly hired director, laid out a vision for the office which includes a sustainable New Orleans in the areas of building, coastal management as well as public education.