By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
A Lower 9th Ward park touted in August as one of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s definite 100 recovery projects is being funded at one-third the level initially promised, a top Landrieu appointee said at a City Council budget hearing Wednesday.
The Oliver Bush recreation center is near the intersection of Caffin and Florida avenues, not far from the site of the 2005 levee failure that decimated the Lower 9th Ward. It was assigned a price range of $2.7 million to $3.3 million on a list of committed projects released around the fifth anniversary of Katrina. But on the 2011 capital budget now being considered by the City Council, the project got a mere $736,000.
Deputy Mayor for Facilities, Infrastructure and Community Development Cedric Grant told the council that the financial change does not indicate a changed scope. Grant offered an unequivocal “yes” when council President Arnie Fielkow asked whether “whatever was promised four months ago was still being done.”
Grant said that the $2 million disparity indicates only a better understanding of true construction costs.
“We had wild estimates out of FEMA, and architects giving us high estimates. Then we got real about it. We got a real budget,” Grant said.
The explanation did not satisfy the concerns of Councilman Jon Johnson, who represents the area.
“It certainly does raise questions for my constituents if a project was slated to be renovated and improved at the tune of over $2 million and now the community is finding out it is slated to be improved at less than a million dollars,” Johnson said.
Later in the meeting, the councilman described going to community meetings with residents who want to know why more resources have not gone to rebuilding in the Lower 9th Ward. He said that while “every Tom, Dick and Harry” on a devastation tour visits the Lower 9th Ward, a bike path on St. Claude Avenue is only improvement completed there so far.
“I catch hell,” the councilman said.
Grant indicated he understood Johnson’s concerns and reiterated the administration’s commitment to his district, saying over and again that people were working as fast as possible to get projects started. Even so, the deputy mayor managed to provoke questions from the councilman a second time when he said that a swimming pool at another Lower 9th Ward park, Sam Bonart Playground, may not be reconstructed because it was near a pool being built at the neighborhood’s Sanchez Center.
“The question is: Can we support two pools that are so close to each other?” Grant said.
The $475,000 set aside for Bonart in the capital budget is “sufficient for the buildings” on the site, including a concession stand and a shelter for a basketball court, he said.
A side-by-side comparison of the mayor’s proposed capital budget and the 100 project list unveiled in August shows that the mayor has not significantly altered the size of his commitment to Lower 9th Ward recreational facilities. In both documents, about $16 million is promised for the reconstruction of Sam Bonart playground, Oliver Bush playground and the Sanchez Center and pool, the difference being that the costs in the August budget were represented with a range of about $100,000. (The $16 million figure represents the low end of the cost range estimated by the administration in August.) While funding for Oliver Bush was significantly lower in the capital budget than anticipated in August, Sanchez Center expenses totaled higher than anticipated. The funding for Sam Bonart park fell within the range projected in August.
Residents at Wednesday’s hearing voiced dissatisfaction with the administration’s treatment of the neighborhood.
“We’ll do what we can to break this administration down,” said Vanessa Gueringer, a Lower 9th Ward community organizer with the group, A Community Voice.
The group has argued that the Lower 9th Ward was shortchanged on recovery dollars since before Landrieu came to office. Grant left early from a June community meeting organized by Gueringer’s group.
The council saw some emotion earlier in Wednesday’s hearing when Landrieu staffers told the council that former Mayor Ray Nagin burned through $102 million of a $200 million revolving loan fund given to the city by the state. Revolver spending was a major point of contention between the last council and Nagin, and an air of exasperation filled the chambers as Grant explained the city’s expected balance of $92 million, following pending reimbursements.
Grant pledged that the Landrieu administration would spend the revolver “prudently.”
The money was supposed to be spent on expenses that would ultimately be covered by FEMA, and that way, last through the entirety of the recovery as a means to jump-start projects before settlements are complete. Of the $102 million in non-reimbursable expenses spent by the last administration, a total of $14 million went to renovating Mahalia Jackson Auditorium, a pet project of former mayor Ray Nagin, Grant said.
Watch Cohen talking about the proposed millage increase and the changes in budget for Oliver Bush Park on the Fox8 WVUE morning show: