New Orleans’ tricentennial in 2018 is the Landrieu administration’s North Star. It’s the bright shining milestone around which every policy seems to revolve. A city that regularly celebrates is preparing to throw itself a year-long birthday party, perhaps with a hometown Super Bowl added to the mix.
It will be fun.
But it will also be the final year of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s second term, and he wants a triumphal send-off. The tricentennial is a once-in-300-year opportunity to showcase the city and demonstrate that New Orleans didn’t just rebuild after the flood, it created itself anew.
When he took office in 2010, Landrieu adopted a “fix everything at once” approach to New Orleans’ myriad problems. Crime, blight, potholed streets, leaky sewerage, joblessness, homelessness — he said we had to tackle them all at the same time.
It was an ambitious strategy, to be sure, but the Landrieu administration seemed to sense it was necessary.
Without rapid improvements on all fronts, they feared, the city wouldn’t expand its tax base quickly enough to shoulder old debts and expensive new consent decree obligations.
Without quick growth, the administration feared we’d be revenue-starved and forced into a vicious circle of budget cuts, decreased services, and further population outflows.
If that cycle began, we’d have to admit defeat and resign ourselves to the permanently smaller city footprint some had recommended after the flood. Perhaps we’d have to declare bankruptcy, like Detroit.
So quick growth wasn’t just a lofty goal. In Landrieu’s mind it was a survival strategy — grow or die, the only way to avoid being swamped by oncoming expenses.
As a way to stay focused, Landrieu designated the tricentennial as a point around which the city could rally and the administration could orient its simultaneous problem-solving and lofty goal-setting. So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s expensive, for one. As a result, Landrieu has been on a relentless quest to gain more revenues to fund his “fix everything at once” strategy in time for the additional expenses of his tricentennial victory lap. His latest legislative effort seeks more taxes on properties, tobacco, and hotels. In case that doesn’t work, he’s also seeking a special riverfront tax district to secure a line of funding the city doesn’t have to share.
Critics are displeased and urge Landrieu to make budget cuts rather than confiscate more income from taxpayers. Landrieu’s allies say the mayor needs the tax revenues for budget “flexibility.” But giving the administration more flexibility comes at the expense of increasingly inflexible household budgets.
Another problem with Landrieu’s approach is that we’re expanding the tax base with an influx of transplants, a dynamic that has ignited housing inflation and a sharp increase in rents. This dynamic contributed significantly, I believe, to recent anti-tax votes by the New Orleans electorate, including last month’s decisive rejection of a proposed 50-year Audubon zoo millage. Note also, by the way, that Audubon Nature Institute president Ron Forman said he intended to bond out that property tax revenue to fund new exhibits and attractions many of which would debut in time for — yep, you guessed it — the tricentennial.
Voters feel tapped out and need a clearer sense of how much more will be asked from them. Even voters who could afford the zoo millage opposed it because they were concerned it would impinge on future taxes for more important obligations, such as flood protection and federal consent decrees for the police department and jail.
Landrieu should outline what it will take to pursue his all encompassing strategy of fixing big problems, providing full-service government and preparing for the tricentennial gala. I suspect we won’t be able to do it all.
Hopefully I’m wrong and it will all work out. Earlier investments will start paying off for citizens in a big way. For example, reductions in violent crime and blight may reinvigorate depressed neighborhoods and expand available housing inventory to stabilize residential costs.
But right now the administration’s attempts to fund an ambitious agenda to grow us out of our financial bind seems like a high-stakes tightwire act. The city keeps saying it needs more and more money to pay debts and keep the city booming, but voters may be nearing the brink and will continue rejecting increased taxes and fees.
If that happens, something’s got to give, be it aspects of the tricentennial extravaganza or items on the “fix everything at once” menu. I don’t see how we can do it all.