Government & Politics

Hey, who turned the lights off?

When New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin explained in mid-December the administration’s decision to close most city buildings on Friday, he described it as a last-resort attempt to save the city money on utility costs and janitorial services.

Budget document released by his office show a projected $100,000 savings on janitorial service in Municipal Traffic Court, Criminal District Court and City Hall and another $30,000 monthly on utility costs at 1300 Perdido Street, adding up to $460,000 annually. That doesn’t count the additional savings generated by the closure of other city-owned buildings, such as public libraries and recreational facilities.

“We have a lot of funds, but they are connected to capital or recovery projects or programs,” Nagin said at a Dec. 17 media briefing on the cuts.  “A lot of [the money] is grant-related, which means we don’t have the power to move it, so the cuts have to be connected to services and closures.”

The mayor’s logic makes sense. What doesn’t is the fact that a significant number of programs and projects that didn’t lose funding in this latest round of cuts also appear to have had the plug pulled on them.

Take a look, for instance, at the St. Roch Market in Faubourg Marigny.  Last Friday, the crumbling city-owned St. Claude Avenue building was as dark as 1300 Perdido.

Back in 2007, the rickety wooden building appeared poised for a rebirth. In October, Recovery Czar Ed Blakely kicked off one of his trademark “recovery” bike tours at the shuttered landmark. In June of that year, the plan released by Blakely’s office and approved by the state, included the site as one of the city’s “strategic assets” eligible for public recovery grants and further development incentives. By April of ‘09, the Louisiana Recovery Authority had approved a project worksheet for the redevelopment and obligated $500,000 that so the city could move forward. Nine months later, the money remains in a bank account in Baton Rouge, the project in pre-development phases and the wooden building unlocked, its musty, trash-strewn interior partially exposed to the elements.

When asked why so little progress has been made on the high-profile project, the city’s Director of Strategic Planning, Dubravka Gilic offered her observation that the slowest period of any public project is the pre-approval design phase that market planners are currently plodding through. “We are finally getting out of that phase and beginning to see progress,” she said in a recent telephone interview from her department’s city-leased office in the Amoco building.  (Though the utilities will remain humming there on Fridays, the city employees that work inside will take on the four-day schedule.)

Let’s hope Gilic is right about progress on the horizon. And let’s keep our fingers crossed that none of the contractors making that progress happen need a permit from City Hall on a Friday.

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