Government & Politics
 

Council members seek more accountability in Wisner, NOLA for Life spending

The mayor’s overall budget, the bulk of which is more than $100 million in federal and state grants for hazard mitigation and blight eradication, would decrease from $153 million in 2013 to $140 million next year. That’s largely due to a drop in state grant money, according to budget documents provided by the City Council’s fiscal office.

But Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s portion of the general fund budget, which is made up of locally generated funds over which the city has full control, would increase $1 million to $10.6 million — about a 10 percent increase. The office would also see a staff bump next year, although the city’s overall staffing would decrease.

Mayor’s Offices

At Wednesday’s budget hearing, councilmembers’ questions often centered on greater transparency and accountability from the mayor’s office, specifically:

After a nearly yearlong lawsuit between the city and other Wisner beneficiaries, a judge ruled in October that the Wisner Fund is public money under the city’s control. On Wednesday, Councilwoman Stacy Head said that means the city’s legislative branch should have the final say on how it’s spent.

Landrieu’s budget proposal allocates about $582,000 in Wisner money, pledged before the lawsuit, to pay for the Mayoral Fellows, a City Hall-based mentorship program for recent college graduates, and New Orleans Ceasefire, a violence reduction effort in Central City.

The budget does not, however, include more than $1.5 million in Wisner-funded grants the city usually gives to local charities. As long as the lawsuit is winding through appeals courts, the city doesn’t plan to allocate any Wisner grant money. That could put some of those charities in a bind.

But even if the money were included, Landrieu’s General Counsel Erica Beck said, the council would have no control of it.

“The council has traditionally not appropriated any of that grant money,” Beck told the council. “We’ve received no indication from the judge that we need to change.”

But as blogger Jason Berry recently pointed out, New Orleans Municipal Code appears to give the council control of the fund. In fact, Berry reported, that “check and balance” was central to the city’s argument that the fund should be declared public.

“If there is in fact council oversight,” asked Head, “and there is a check and balance for this government fund, when do I have that council oversight that is part and parcel to that check and balance?”

During her remarks on the Wisner Fund, Head also objected to the process for handing out NOLA for Life grant funds, saying it wasn’t transparent, which led to funds going to charities that lacked proper financial documentation.

Next up was a presentation on the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, which includes the sprawling NOLA for Life initiative. Charles West, the director of Landrieu’s Innovation and Delivery Team, told the council that his office is drafting a report on the initiative’s performance to date, which the council first asked for in May, then later in July.

West said one possible measure was this year’s homicides to date, about 120, which West said was a 40-year low. Councilman James Gray took issue with that measure, saying the number of homicides doesn’t matter so much as the per capita rate.

“It is not true that it is historically low. It has been lower per capita than it is today,” when the city had a larger population, Gray said. “Even if we had a historic drop, we are still way out of line with the national numbers.”

In any case, he said, the administration shouldn’t be so quick to credit the program for a single-year homicide drop.

“If you’ve tracked the murder rate like I have, you’ll know it goes up and down, up and down,” Gray said, adding that he believes fluctuations in the rate are likely due to larger factors such as poverty and unemployment. “Maybe you can get credit for the drop … We do need more basic evidence to support those conclusions.”

The controversial Vera pretrial services program wasn’t discussed at the hearing.

Code Enforcement

In the afternoon, Director of Code Enforcement Pura Bascos and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin gave a presentation on Code Enforcement, part of the Office of Community Development. The council has criticized Code Enforcement in the past, but the hearing was long on charts and short on specific criticisms.

Council President Jackie Clarkson called former City Councilman Johnny Jackson Jr. to the microphone to speak about blight in the the Upper 9th Ward. He said blight there is “incomprehensible.”

Though high-profile projects are a sign of recovery, he said, nearby there are reminders of the ongoing battle against blight: sidewalks impassable by high grass, weeds and debris.

Councilman James Gray questioned the long-term plan to deal with blight. The solution isn’t finding people to mow lawns, he said. “We need to find someone with a job who wants the house,” he said, so that properties will be rehabbed and brought back onto the tax rolls.

The council was especially interested in the code waiver program, which forgives liens and fines after owners fix up the property.

The issue for some council members is that the process of forgiving those penalties is not transparent.

Councilwoman Stacy Head asked Bascos what she is doing to reform the program. Bascos and Kopplin didn’t cite any specifics, but they assured the council that they would present some measures to the council shortly.

Kopplin said the city would work with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to make sure that buyers of its properties know that they’re obligated to bring them up to code. In July, The Lens reported on a NORA property that was sold at auction and later bulldozed by the city for code violations.

Head questioned how 311 calls were prioritized for inspection, suggesting that some properties had never made it to the top of the inspection list. “Are we digging through the backlog of 311 reports, or should we just chuck them out?” she asked.

Bascos said there are requirements for how much time can pass between inspection, citation and hearing, which is one reason that properties cited further in the past had not come before a hearing officer.

Head encouraged the public to resubmit complaints to 311 if they don’t see any progress.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell cited an instance in which a nonprofit was renovating a property and was cited for blight. The group considered paying the fines with money intended for renovation.

Meanwhile, abandoned properties nearby continue to decay. “People who are doing the right thing … they get fines while the properties next door continue to fester,” Cantrell said.

Kopplin responded, “We get that question all the time: ‘Why is this property getting aggressive treatment and not that one?’” He said properties near high-profile projects may receive greater scrutiny when it comes to code enforcement.

The nearly three-hour afternoon session was scheduled to close with a presentation from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, but the meeting was adjourned at  5 p.m.

Clarkson applauded Bascos for her hard work. “Blight has been my thing,” Clarkson said, “but this has also been Stacy Head’s thing, and even she complimented you.”

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