In his final meeting to get public input on next year’s budget priorities, Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Tuesday questioned whether the city should pay for a new program to encourage public input.

David Welch of the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association asked the mayor to fund the Citizen Participation Project, an effort included in the city’s recently approved master plan. As envisioned, it would set up a new series of neighborhood councils to solicit and pass on to city leaders the residents’ comments on myriad issues facing the community.

“Do you want to pay for this?” Landrieu asked skeptically.

Addressing a standing-room-only church in Gentilly, Landrieu asked rhetorically why people would pay for a program that lets them talk to him through a paid intermediary bureaucracy.

Nothing in the Citizen Participation plan prevents individuals or existing neighborhood organizations from taking concerns directly to officials.

Keith Twitchell, president of Citizens for a Better New Orleans, the organization that has fostered the creation of the Citizen Participation Project, did not attend the meeting. Reached by phone Wednesday, he said,  “We are actively working with members of the city council and Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant to identify a specific funding source.”

The proposed project is projected to cost $2 million,  but Twitchell said that “people want a dedicated funding source” to ensure that the project does not become a victim of political whim.

Though City Council members and Landrieu say they support the civic-engagement concept, they have not found a firm source of money to pay for it. Those involved have considered redirecting an existing property tax dedicated to civic improvement, or seeking an additional tax.

As he did most of the evening – and at similar gatherings in the other four council districts – Landrieu reinforced the message that money is limited and residents must set priorities.

The administration last week reported that an already-imposing $67 million deficit facing the city this calendar year has grown to $78 million. Because the city can’t run a deficit – and because the administration of Mayor Ray Nagin burned through all the reserve money the city once had – Landrieu must cut expenses to eliminate that gap.

One controversial move among Landrieu’s tactics to address the shortfall was to furlough city employees, requiring them to take an unpaid day off in each of the remaining two-week pay periods this year.

To avoid the same budget-gap problem next year, Landrieu this month initiated a series of priority-setting meetings across the city, with one in each of the five City Council Districts.

Each was well attended, with residents eager to not only push their priorities, but to vent about an array of problems with the city, from broken streetlights and potholes to police misconduct and lousy customer service at City Hall.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...