By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Spending on road and infrastructure maintenance likely will decrease in 2012 despite its importance to voters.

The move by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to decrease spending for the Department of Public Works is a bold one. Unlike more esoteric sectors of city governance such as the Office of Finance or the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, Public Works employees’ value to the public is straightforward — they fix stuff.

Busted sidewalk? Gaping potholes? Dark streetlamp? Call Public Works. Over and over, residents who turned out for public meetings this summer on the city’s 2012 budget told the mayor to prioritize spending on such infrastructure work.

Despite that clear call, the mayor has proposed cutting overall departmental spending by $4 million from, $23 million in 2011 to $19 million in 2012. General-fund spending will shrink by $840,774 or 4 percent. The Landrieu administration maintains that the cut won’t affect the quality of services because of increased efficiency within City Hall. Wielding data that shows steady improvements in meeting monthly goals for pothole fixes and streetlight repairs, the administration says that will continue an upward performance spike, regardless of cuts in personnel and operating spending.

“We are doing more with less,” Deputy Mayor of Facilities, Infrastructure and Community Development Cedric Grant said at a budget hearing Monday in City Council Chambers. “These are difficult times and we are making difficult decisions.”

Grant spoke as part of the council’s three-week, department-by-department review of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2012 budget. The $494 million budget proposed by Landrieu cuts spending in nearly all departments, with only a few agencies related to public safety and recreation seeing increases. Despite the departmental reductions, the general fund as a whole is slightly larger than the current year’s budget of $484 million, thanks to property reassessments that increased the amount of tax revenue the city collects. Landrieu has said that the additional tax dollars  will be dedicated to increasing pension and health care costs, and debt payments.

Council members used the occasion of the Public Works budget hearing to share complaints about dark streetlamps, broken streets and other familiar New Orleans gripes with departmental officials, including a new director – Retired Army Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan.

Jernigan is a licensed professional engineer who until recently served as the deputy commander and chief of staff for the New Orleans district office of the Army Corps of Engineers. He was introduced at the start of the two-hour discussion. He replaces Robert Mendoza, a Nagin administration appointee who was dismissed in August following a kerfuffle over his hiring of off-duty police officers to review alleged traffic-camera violations.

Council members implored the administration— and its new hire— to use resources more wisely than in the past.

“I don’t know why decisions have been made the way they have over the past six years,” Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said. “Streets in my district are dark because street lamps haven’t been repaired. In Gentilly, you have ditches where there should be sidewalks and in Councilwoman (Stacy) Head’s district there are trees growing in potholes. That must change.”