By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

This summer, Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited residents to come out and tell him how they wanted their tax dollars spent in 2012. Community meetings held in every section of the city attracted hundreds of residents who spoke passionately about needs in their community – needs for jobs, access to health care and, overwhelmingly, a need for a reduction in blight and improvements in the city’s aging infrastructure.

One issue was conspicuously absent from the public conversation: crime. Few raised the issue. Some people even asked the mayor to consider spending more money on creating opportunities for city residents, and less on policing them.

Despite that, Landrieu has proposed increasing the New Orleans Police Department budget by 9 percent, from $109.4 million in $119.5 million in 2012. Most other city agencies will have their budgets cut.

“We heard folks at the budget meetings say spend less on public safety, but at the moment, we think it (spending more) is the right thing to do,” Landrieu said Monday in an overview presentation of his $495 million proposed 2012 budget to reporters. The budget represents a 2.3 percent increase over the current year’s budget of $484 million.  Despite the increase, a new austerity will be felt across all city departments, Landrieu said.

“Government at all levels must get smaller and more efficient but deliver high-quality services,” he said, repeating a mantra heard frequently at the budget meetings convened in August and September.

Among other things, the $10 million increase in police spending will pay for a new class of 30 police recruits and more homicide detectives. Nearly $3 million of the spending will come from a U.S. Justice Department grant recently secured by the administration.

Landrieu is proposing another $8 million in increases for other public safety areas as well, such as the city’s chronically underfunded Coroner’s Office and money for recently created Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter, who has been charged with lowering the city’s murder rate. That figure is 10 times higher than the national rate and five times higher than the rate for cities of similar size.

“We aren’t just thinking about the police,” Landrieu said. “We are looking at the whole thing, the coroners office, the courts, the system.”

As with most big cities, the police department is the largest and costliest of New Orleans’ agencies.

Unless the City Council makes drastic changes, that disparity will grow in 2012: Most other departments will shrink under the twin pressures of fewer federal dollars and the mayor’s mandate for a leaner and more efficient City Hall.

The fire department will see a 10 percent budget increase to $83 million, under the mayor’s proposal.

When broken out by general budget area, public safety eats up $275 million or 55 percent of the proposed general fund. That area includes NOPD, the Fire Department, criminal and juvenile justice courts, the Coroner’s Office and the city’s emergency medical services.

By comparison, $13.8 million will go towards the mayor’s budget area of children and families, which includes social service, education and health care programming. Programs in that area that will be cut include staffing and services at public libraries, city-subsidized dental care and a program aimed at rehabilitating youth in the juvenile justice system.

The increase in public-safety spending will in part be paid for homeowners who will pay a projected combined total of $4 million more in property taxes in 2012, because of reassessments done in the past year and the mayor’s recommendation to keep the increased revenue by rolling the millage forward. At his press conference, the mayor emphasized that the roll forward is not a tax increase.

“Property rate millage will be rolled forward but the rates will stay the same,” he said.

But while the point was reiterated in a subsequent presentation made by Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, others interpreted the facts differently.

“The mayor keeps saying this is not a tax increase,” Council President Jackie Clarkson said. “But anyone who has been reassessed up will feel an increase and that is still an increase on what they pay out their pocket.”