By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Mayor Mitch Landrieu tonight will host the first in a series of community meetings to learn what residents’ priorities are for the 2012 budget, which is already being drafted.

Billed as a part of the city’s effort to spend taxpayer money more efficiently, the meetings represent a rare chance for residents to make their needs heard before the the mayor and City Council begin divvying up the city’s annual income. Last year, Landrieu’s first in office, thousands of residents frustrated by a lack of progress in their neighborhoods came to meetings demanding more transparent accounting of how billions of dollars in recovery money were being spent, along with safer streets, improved infrastructure and more economic opportunity.

Last year, seven meetings were held, at least one in each council district.  Tonight’s meeting, co-hosted by District B Councilwoman Stacy Head, will be at the Dryades YMCA on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and run until 8. Head and the mayor will be joined by all department heads, including Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. Between 5:30 and 6 p.m., residents will have the opportunity to speak with department heads about specific complaints.

Though the meetings were more heavily promoted last year, a healthy turnout is expected, Head said.

“I just got a call about the meeting from a constituent who runs a senior center in Central City,” Head said. “She’s very concerned about maintaining funding for senior citizens and she will be there.”

The councilwoman anticipates many residents will be interested in hearing the mayor’s plan for attacking the basic infrastructural problems that continue to dog neighborhoods.

“I know at this point, based on the number of complaints we get, people are anxious to see all the potholes filled, blight reduced, citations given to people operating outside of the law,” she said.  “People are interested in the mundane things that are not headline-catching, but impact them.”

At a meeting held one year ago last week in an eastern New Orleans, church neighbors spoke passionately about the need to replace Katrina-shuttered Methodist Hospital with another 24-hour hospital in their community. This afternoon, hours before the first of this year’s meetings, Landrieu will host the first reopening on the campus of the former hospital, the opening of a 24-hour urgent care facility.