Amid an otherwise placid budget hearing, City Council members Wednesday challenged Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to withhold money for urban planners at a time when his administration is anticipating major rebuilding.

The mayor’s proposed 2011 budget recommends $1.2 million for the City Planning Commission. That budget represents a slight drop from this year’s budget of $1.3   million – and about half of the budget requested by commission Director Yolanda Rodriguez.

The $1.2 million left unfunded in the mayor’s proposed budget would have paid for 13 new district planners who would work in particular neighborhoods to ensure that development was proceeding according to the much-touted citywide master plan adopted this year.

These positions are necessary for implementing the “place-based” development strategy that Landrieu has spoken of since coming to office, Rodriguez said Wednesday.

“We will not be able to provide neighborhood-based or place-based planning that we had anticipated nor we will be able to provide the services needed to complete a neighborhood participation program,” she said.

Rodriguez’s department is responsible for the zoning changes, design reviews and construction permits required for a new building, commercial use or development to move forward. Over the past five years, the department has been on the front line of the city’s recovery as businesses and families present plan after plan for rebuilding storm-damaged homes and shops, restaurants, offices and hotels.

In the coming year, that work will again expand as department planners craft the comprehensive zoning ordinance and neighborhood participation plan needed to codify changes recommended in the citywide master plan. To handle these new responsibilities, the department requested $2.45 million from the city’s operating budget.

By way of comparison, the mayor requested $2.24 million to fund an executive-branch office of economic development to work in tandem with the Nola Business Alliance.

Rodriguez said that her department was already struggling before the reduction in budget because of a decision made to withhold federal grant money intended for planners.  Federal Disaster Community Development Block Grant money meant to pay for the city to hire two new planners, including a transportation expert, never made it to the department, she said.

“The city received funding for five positions for three years. Now we have three filled,” Rodriguez explained. “The other positions were never created.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who recalled e-mailing with a transportation planner who expected to be hired through the unused federal grant, backed up the department head.

“We had a transportation planner that was waiting to be hired,” she said. Guidry said that the decision to withhold funding for the planners was “egregious” given the need for the City Planning Commission to function efficiently.

“We have businesses that are waiting four months to get things through,” she said.

The Landrieu administration downplayed the decision to shift the grant money.

“My recollection is that people weren’t certain that we wanted to add these additional people versus other things,” said Norman Foster, the city’s chief financial officer.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin summarized the decision as one of necessity: the city could not afford to use the money on planners because it was needed to complete projects underfunded by the prior administration.

“When you’ve written too many checks… and those checks come due you have to make hard decisions,” he said.

The administration’s explanations did not appear to sway council members.  District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell raised concerns that without more planners, retail would continue to migrate out of the city into suburban parishes with faster permitting processes. District C Councilwoman Kristin Palmer echoed that concern telling Landrieu officials that the city’s success is “tied to neighborhood development” which depends on a “fully-functioning” City Planning Commission. Seated next to Palmer, District B Councilwoman Stacy Head decreed that “nothing could move forward” without the department. “I’m voting,” she announced, “for city planning.”

No other departments that came before the council Wednesday provoked as much debate as City Planning.

Other highlights of the meeting included:

  • The Landrieu administration presented a $2.5 million budget for management of the city’s Health Department. The request represents a $700,000 savings from 2010, according to Health Department Director Charlotte Parent. In subsequent years, savings are projected to grow, she said. Parent told the council that the department is evolving to be a “public health authority” and community education resource, rather than a direct service provider.
  • Councilman Jon Johnson, whose wife is a private-sector doctor practicing in a city-subsidized clinic in Central City, raised concerns about civil servants losing their jobs to the privatization. “We believe, in many cases, in privatizing things, but in the transition, we have city employees who may want to stay on as a part of civil service,” he said.  Kopplin agreed, but emphasized that the city must “watch out for its best interests” and stop providing direct-run services. “How you track and manage these employees through a transition is something we will be watching,” he said.
  • Landrieu officials presented a $2.88 million budget for Municipal Court. The request represents a $1.16 increase from 2010, justified by the council’s desire to rely less on fees and fines levied by the court, according to the administration. The increase will also cover a rise in domestic violence and blight cases, Landrieu officials said. Court representatives went onto explain that the court’s biggest operational expense aside from personnel is information technology with  $220,000 going to IT contractors. Officials also said that in the next year, Municipal Court plans to scan all affidavits and documents so information will be available online and the court can dispose of paper copies and renovate space now used to archive materials.
  • Department of Property Management officials presented a $10 million budget, $1.2 million more than the department received in 2010. The additional money is needed to make urgent repairs, according to Kopplin. He emphasized that property management is making do with a bare minimum. The council didn’t argue, though members in the past have voiced unhappiness with the cost and quality of maintenance at city properties.