By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |
Streets and infrastructure topped the list of budget priorities for Algiers residents who came out Wednesday night for the second of seven public hearings regarding Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2012 budget.
“More than a year ago, we were sitting in this exact spot and I told you about streets, street lights, catch basins,” resident Donald Costello said. “You told me people would get back to me. No one got back to me. Am I going to get the same treatment next year?”
It was a question heard repeatedly throughout the two-hour meeting at the Behrman Center: Will the Landrieu administration be able to make the infrastructure improvements it came into office promising?
Yet as the evening wore on, with resident after resident standing up to tell the mayor about daily struggles with pitted streets, failing drainage systems and nonexistent streetlamps, it become obvious that the answer residents wanted to hear wasn’t coming. The bottom line, the mayor said, is that New Orleans will have to remain patient while City Hall figures out how to pay for billions of dollars worth of needed repairs to aging infrastructure
“We have a couple of major infrastructural challenges that we don’t have answer to right now,” he said. Later in the evening, Landrieu equated the experience of residents who came to the meeting seeking salves for their infrastructural ailments with those “going to the doctor and getting bad news.”
He said global financial crises will be felt here.
“What happens in Washington, in China and India, what happens in Greece has an impact on us,” he said. “All of that has a financial consequence… and the likelihood is that we aren’t going to be able to do everything we want to do.”
That message echoed the sober warnings of hard times ahead that dominated his first public budget hearing last week.
But even as the mayor publicly frets about tight times, a spokesman said today that the administration isn’t planning to raise taxes.
“There are always financial decisions the city has to make, especially as the financial pressure comes down from the federal government,” spokesman Ryan Berni said. “We raised millage rates last year, now we have the Tax Fairness Commission looking at what can be done to level the burden.”
“There are no plans to raise the city millage.”
Berni acknowledged that even if Landrieu doesn’t inch up the millage rate, other public taxing entities are likely to take the step. In recent weeks, the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, the Audubon Commission and Orleans Parish School Board have issued public notices of meetings wherein officials will consider raising the millage rate that determines how much taxpayers owe.
However grim about the city’s immediate financial prospects, Landrieu hinted at a future settlement that would send federal grant money to neighborhoods for repair of smaller streets ineligible for the Federal Highway Administration-funded Submerged Roads Program. That infrastructure program, the largest since Katrina, targets major connecting arteries. It has paid for the remake of Earhart Boulevard and Carrollton Avenue and is funding ongoing work on Magazine Street and South Claiborne Avenue.
“All over the city, we’re turning dirt, but all of you coming in are saying ‘neighborhood streets,’ ” Landrieu said. “The answer is [securing] a bucket-load of money that comes in over a long period of time. We are going to do that.”
The mayor also affirmed his administration’s commitments to bike lanes and the three Mississippi River ferry lines that connect Algiers and Gretna to the east bank.
Crescent City Connection tolls pay for the river ferries, and they are set to expire in 2012, unless renewed by the Louisiana Legislature. If the toll is not renewed, the ferries could be shut down by the state Department of Transportation and Development.
In response to questions from residents fearful of losing their connection to the city’s center, Landrieu reminded the crowd of the state’s ownership of the ferries and urged legislators in the crowd to lobby for their continued support.
With a bungled reference to an old joke about the Lone Ranger, Landrieu lightheartedly reiterated that the state, not the city, had responsibility for the ferries. “What mean “we,” Tonto?” he joked.