By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

It’s going to get worse before it gets better. That was the financial message Mayor Mitch Landrieu left with New Orleanians at the first of his public meetings on the 2012 budget held Tuesday night in the heart of Central City.

Though he worked the crowd with his usual jocularity most of the evening, Landrieu, became sober as he spoke at the close of the two-hour town-hall meeting at the Dryades YMCA. It was a theme familiar to anyone who has heard President Barack Obama talk about cutting social-welfare programs. At the heart of the mayoral real talk seemed to be an admission, that, like the president, Landrieu is going to be making cuts that likely will upset his base of supporters.

“My point is,” Landrieu said, “as hard as its been in the last couple years, its going to get harder.”

Resident listen as Mayor Mitch Landrieu addresses the crowd at a town-hall meeting on the budget Tuesday night. Photo by Ariella Cohen

The mayor, typically reluctant to expose political partisanship and alienate potential supporters, explained Tuesday that he wouldn’t be able to guarantee that a senior center in Central City would receive the same amount of money as it had in years past because of spending cuts in Washington.

Most recently, a $2.8 billion cut to the federal U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department budget crimped the city’s Community Development Office by about $3.5 million in federal grant money. The grants have long been the city’s main source of funding for social-welfare programs such as senior and childcare centers.

“That debate in Washington about downsizing government, cutting government spending that…is really about us,” Landrieu told a crowd of senior citizens seated together in matching yellow shirts emblazoned with the logo of the city-funded Central City EOC Senior Center.

The Central City seniors weren’t the only group to make its voice heard on Tuesday. Throughout the evening, residents asked the mayor to stop financing the city’s jail with a daily rate paid to the sheriff per inmate and instead, fund Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s jail with a lump sum.

“Right now, the sheriff has an incentive to put more of our neighbors and loved ones in jail. We are asking the city to abolish the per diem,” Yvette Thierry, executive director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities said, repeating a plea that dominated last year’s hearings on the city’s criminal justice budget.

Gusman, who was not at the meeting, has in the past threatened to sue the city to keep and raise the per diem. Landrieu noted that threat in his response to the Safe Street activist, replaying their argument and agreeing that the change should be made.

“I would love to get rid of the per diem, but I am not the only one in this fight,” he said.

Landrieu said that Gusman will likely be forced to reconsider the issue under the terms of a pending consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The topic of overall crime was largely absent from public discussion, though Landrieu mentioned that the Police Department has a long way to go after  last week’s verdicts that found five current or former NOPD officers guilty of civil-rights violations after Hurricane Katrina. Aside from calls for equity between financing the prosecutors and the Public Defender’s Office,  and one resident’s encouragement to others to report all crimes, the topic wasn’t mentioned.

Mainly, the meeting returned to themes that have dominated Landrieu’s time at City Hall — blight, transparency and other quality-of-life issues. Michelle Kimball, a senior advocate with the Preservation Resource Center, asked the mayor to sustain funding for permitting and preservation programs.  Downsizing at City Hall could slow already beleaguered projects, Kimball said. “It’s absolutely critical that we fully staff the departments that keep these projects running,” she said.

Nick Kindel from New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance, a coalition of nonprofits to which The Lens belongs, requested Landrieu make available budget requests submitted to the administration by departments. That, Kindel said, would help residents offer more specific and valuable input on how their tax money should be spent.

“These meetings are a great idea,” he said, “but I encourage you to keep doing more.”

The mayor said he plans to hold six more meetings to get public input on the budget,  with at least one in each City Council District.

Here is a preliminary schedule for the next six meetings –

District A : Aug 24th, location TBA

District C: Sept 7th, East Bank  5:30 – 8:00pm location TBA, Aug 17th,  West bank 5:30 – 8:00pm  location TBA  (possibly the Behrman Center)

District D: Aug 22, UNO Lindy Boggs Center (2045 Lakeshore Drive), 5:30 – 8:00pm

District E: Aug. 30, Household of Faith (9300 I-10 Service Road), 5:30 – 8:00pm; Aug. 31, Dr Martin Luther King Jr School (1671 Caffin Avenue) 5:30 – 8:00pm