Master plan moving forward with no clear source of funding for citizen participation element

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The City Council will vote Thursday on whether to give final approval to a citywide master plan establishing new guidelines for land use and civic participation.

The vote is largely symbolic because of an amendment to the City Charter approved by voters in 2008 that legally enshrined the plan even before consultants completed it in January.

The plan, subject to public input through a series of public meetings that occurred last spring, knits together neighborhood priorities expressed through post-Katrina planning processes into a single cohesive document that establishes new rules for land use.  It also lays the foundation for a rewriting of the city’s zoning code and mandates the city create a new system for public participation into zoning decisions. The new mechanism, which is outlined in only vague terms in the master plan, will remake the current informal process – instead of residents making their voices heard solely through testimony before the City Council, they will have the option of participating through a system of recognized neighborhood group committees that will advise the council on land use decisions in their districts.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council have expressed support for the civic engagement tool, yet neither have come up with a surefire strategy for paying its estimated $2 million a year tab. And while the master plan mandates the creation of the new engagement tool, it does not provide any hints of how to pay for it.

Advocates of the reform say it should not be funded through the city’s general operating fund because doing that would make the program too vulnerable to budget cuts. “We need to have a dedicated funding source, something that wouldn’t let the council just kill it with one slash to the budget,” Committee for a Better New Orleans President Keith Twitchell said.

Planners believe that a millage passed years ago for neighborhood revitalization may be able to be used to support the new neighborhood offices, Twitchell said. If not, it is possible voters could pass a new millage or fee, he said. He estimates the cost per-family of the program is $70 annually, based on a 300,000-household population. “Will people want to put money towards more bureaucracy? No,” he said. “But will they be willing to put a modest sum towards more citizen participation? I think so.”

Legislation determining the structure of the participation system is expected to move through the City Planning Commission and City Council in the fall.

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