Government & Politics

NORD budget decisions premature, council says

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By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

Though presenters at the second day of City Council budget hearings  enthusiastically outlined their funding requests for city programs aimed at children and families, most council members said the time – and the budget – isn’t right to begin new projects and  urged them to find money elsewhere.

Major city programs discussed at Tuesday’s hearings included the New Orleans Recreation Department, the city’s Job 1 Program for workforce development, the Health Department and the New Orleans Public Library. Council members also discussed funding for the city’s Council on Aging and the non-profit organization Total Community Action.

Money for the New Orleans Recreation Department was at the forefront of the six-hour discussion. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said residents asked for an improved recreation department, and he plans to deliver. It’s one of the few departments that could be considered flush, with Landrieu proposing to double the agency’s budget to $10 million.

But council members criticized the department’s plan to increase staff right away, saying such hiring is premature.

Councilman Arnie Fielkow said he is “1000 percent supportive” of the increase, but he said the new Recreation Commission that voters approved in the Oct. 2 elections should decide  staffing and program increases.

“I want to be sure that the new structure, once in place – the new commission, the new superintendent, the new employees and the leadership team that comes with that new model –  is not hamstrung in any way by a budget that we would pass where we are tying in certain types of programs, and certain levels of staffing, because we would be, quite frankly, destroying the intent of what we are trying to do with the [NORD] commission,” Fielkow said.

The $10 million in NORD funding, if approved by the council, would give the department an additional 21 full-time employees who will maintain playground sites and an additional 16 summer camps. It will create new sports programs, including golf, tennis, and flag football. The funding would also allow for new initiatives, such as Movies in the Park, in which NORD will provide outdoor movies.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said that the new commission will search for a superintendent on Jan. 1 and that this person will offer guidance to NORD, but that now is the time to plan for the end of the school year.

“There is this tension between what programming we start worrying about for next summer and next year, and what level of decision making, or autonomy, the new commission needs,” Kopplin said. “Our charge to [the current NORD director] and his team, is to develop plans for the best NORD programming for the calendar year 2011 that he and his team could generate…Those things need to be A) budgeted and B) underway.”

Deputy CAO Ann Duplessis said the goal is to prevent the new commission from getting “the status quo,” which she said is “a mess.”

While Fielkow was concerned with stepping on the toes of the new commission, other council members were focused on slimming down the already-scant resources of the department. Councilwoman  Jackie Clarkson encouraged the administration  to take a bare-bones approach of operating NORD until the new commission takes over.

“We need to start finding whomever will interact with us free of charge,” Clarkson said. “That has to be the mission at hand right now. We should stop nothing, we should plan all the way through next summer, but we have to do it, unfortunately, on a skeleton crew… Because we don’t want to spend the money that’s going to be for the new commission anymore than we have to.”

This fiscally conservative attitude summed up the council’s approach to the rest of the hearing presentations throughout the day:

On the City’s Health Department funding:

–       When Deputy Director Charlotte Parent told the council that the city’s Health Department budget gave $3.2 million to help service clinics, Councilwoman Stacey Head asked why the department couldn’t run and administer clinics with grant money instead.

–       Fielkow noted that in the past, the Health Department wasn’t adequately getting federal money for contracted services to those contractors, and wanted to know what the city planned to do to remedy this if the department received funding.

On the Job 1 Program:

–       Head noted the similarity in the services between this  program and other initiatives proposed, and said that the council wants to make sure they aren’t duplicating services. “Let’s face it – we are having to ration resources in the city of New Orleans,” she said.

–       Head said that the $2.7 million that was allocated to Job 1 on the budget would exclude a lot of the city’s kids. Shetook note of the problems the program experienced in the past, including little to no advertising.

–       Councilmember Kristen Giselson Palmer asked the administration if it was possible to work with non-profit organizations that have the money in place for a program similar to this.

On the New Orleans Public Library:

–       NOPL Director Rica Trigs noted that if the library does not receive adequate funding to support its newest branches, then the already-reduced hours of operation will have to be cut back even further. The libraries received $180,000 from the city’s general fund for 2011. She noted that money could possibly come from increasing the dedicated property tax for the libraries, but that it would be difficult to get a measure like this passed with the voters.

–       In response, Clarkson said that Trigs needs help finding outside money: “It may not be able to be more from the city or more from millage, but you do need another source of income.” Clarkson said that the fact that the city’s libraries were so devastated after Katrina should be enough substance to gain considerable grant funding.

On the city’s ServeNOLA initiative

–       Palmer said that New Orleans “already has volunteer management down,” and asked ServeNOLA representatives how this program will be different from the non-profits that are already doing business.

On the Total Community Action Program

–       Head noted the similarity of the initiatives of TCA and other programs, says the city should evaluate “which program does best.”

On the city’s Council on Aging

–       Council on Aging Director Howard Rogers asked  the council to reconsider the decision not to fund the Mobile Dental Van.

–       Kopplin said he was unaware that the city had not chosen to fund the van, even though the budget  on the city’s website says that the mobile van is an “unfunded priority.”

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