Along with grocery stores, functional roads, and less blight, the people of New Orleans’ hardest-hit neighborhoods want a full accounting of recovery spending.
This was the clearest takeaway of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s two public budget meetings this week, with spending priorities taking a back seat to more overarching concerns about transparency and the way budget decisions are typically decided.
“It is absurd that we have to sit here and beg for dollars that were allocated for our park, our library, our streetscape,” eastern New Orleans resident Joan Heisser said at the mayor’s first forum on Monday. “We read, we are educated, we pay taxes, and we deserve to know where the dollars are being spent.”
The concern bubbled up repeatedly that night and throughout Wednesday’s forum at Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward. Multiple residents of these blight-filled, predominantly black neighborhoods asked for a transparent accounting of the billions of dollars in taxpayer money that has come to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and the levee breach five years ago. This desire was expressed in shouts for “the budget to be released” and earnest appeals for an online breakdown of spending so that residents could find why neighborhoods look the way they do, and how they can expect that to change
“It would be nice if I could go online and find out what’s happening, so I won’t be stressed out when nothing is happening out here in New Orleans East,” resident Johnny Bridges implored.
It’s a point we at The Lens understand all too well. Since the site’s launch in January, we have worked to understand how money that came to New Orleans has been used,tracking allocations of the $411 million of Disaster Community Block Development Grants set aside for recovery projects, examining the city’s use of its $200 million revolver fund, and attempting to make sense of why damage reimbursements obligated by FEMA remain unspent five years after the storm. This last inquiry began in the end of June with emails to FEMA and the city. The Lens is still waiting on a comprehensive list of projects with damage assessments that remain undecided and are thus, unable to move forward.
Thankfully, Mayor Landrieu responded to the crowd this week with a few solid answers. He explained the city was still reviewing project records left in disarray by his predecessor, Ray Nagin. He said that once the administration completed new assessments of the 655 public facility projects that have funding coming from FEMA, the city would post up-to-date status reports for each on the city’s website. He also pointed out that the project information published by the last administration bore little relationship to reality. “When the city was putting together its recovery plan, they promised people everything and didn’t put a pencil to anything,” he said. Or as Landrieu’s Chief Administrative Officer and First Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin put it Wednesday; “Lots of people want to know how this money was spent, where it went and so do we.”
But while the frankness of the Landrieu administration comes as a comfort after the defensive posture of Ray Nagin and company, it is plainly not enough to sooth the harried nerves of those residents who continue to wait for answers on why the park or fire station or school in their neighborhood remains shuttered. The mayor recognizes this and for that reason, this week he announced that in less than two week, on his 100th day in office, he will present the city with transparent, concrete and, most importantly, reality-based timelines for 100 projects. That means that the city, in 100 days, will know when and how it will build and pay for projects that we’ve heard touted in the abstract for the last several years. Landrieu also said that in the next 60 days he expects to come to an agreement with FEMA about changing the funding process so the city can collect on its damage claims in a lump sum instead of collecting the cash one check at a time, each check coming with a different project in the subject line. This will allow the city to move money between projects more freely and make it easier agencies to proceed with building before all reimbursement amounts are decided.
He said he is actively negotiating with FEMA. “I talked to the FEMA man today,” he said.
All this is promising but it doesn’t change the problem at the root of all the tension—a deep-seated distrust. And that won’t change unless the mayor is not only able to make charming public proclamations about the process, but also able to open it up. And so, Mayor Landrieu what about that July 14 public records request for all your correspondence with Mr. FEMA?