By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

In a city confronting an ever-rising homicide count and profound infrastructural and economic challenges, one place remains relatively calm: City Hall.

With a noticeable absence of strife or dissent, the City Council voted today to unanimously approve a  $497 million general operating budget for 2012 that looks remarkably similar in substance and detail to the budget proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in October.  The budget reduces spending in nearly all departments excluding the Coroner’s Office, the Fire Department and the New Orleans Police Department, which received a 9 percent budget increase to $119 million from $109 million in 2011. Landrieu has maintained throughout the budget process that improving public safety and lowering the city’s notoriously high homicide rate are his top priorities.

Despite grumbling from council members throughout the three-week budget hearing process about the amount of money the city spends on non-essential government tasks – such as the mayor’s communications office, which received $898,622 for 2012 – the council did not move any money from these areas.  Landrieu’s communication budget for 2012, while smaller than last year’s, is 21 percent larger than that of his predecessor, Ray Nagin.

Little happened at today’s council meeting to take the smile off members’ faces.

Stacy Head, arguably the most outspoken member of the council and a frequent critic of bureaucracy, said there was no “councilwide, meaningful discussion” of shifting funds from these executive-level offices to other city departments because of an overall sense that the budget generally reflects the needs of the city.

“By and large, this is a good budget,” she said.

The budget passed easily not in small part because of conveniently timed decisions to increase the size of the budget from $494 million to $497 million. The move prevented the council from needing to reduce some departmental budgets in order to increase others and fulfill their own goals.

Earlier this week, the city’s economist readjusted the city’s 2012 revenue projections upwards by removing a $1.8 million expenditure on support services for Harrah’s Casino with the expectation that the state will cover the cost. That came on top of an $800,000 savings generated by an adjustment to the city’s pension financing.

The combined $2.6 million windfall gave the council and the mayor clearance to restore unpopular cuts. A $440,000 injection into Department of City Planning will let the department avoid dreaded staff cuts.

”Hopefully it will mean we don’t have to let anyone go, but just because the council allocated the money doesn’t mean the city will spend it,” department administrator Arlen Brunson said.

The Public Defenders Office also received a $475,000 funding bump.

A $16,000 allocation will pay for the Fire Department to hold previously unfunded civil service exams for fire district chiefs.

Also funded by the late-breaking cash infusion: a politically popular pothole-filling crew, Department of Sanitation “sanitation rangers,” and $25,000 for the Arts Council.

These changes, made at the request of Landrieu, with the support of the council, show the mayor’s skill at negotiating with the council. Each restores a reduction in funding that the council had complained about during the three weeks of budget hearings that proceeded Thursday’s action. Despite the smoothness of that transaction, the mayor declined to request a restoration of the $753,620 Landrieu cut from the council’s $9.8 million 2011 budget, leaving the council to restore that money on its own, without political cover.

In addition to restoring its budget to current levels, the council moved $500,000 from the NOPD to the Office of the District Attorney. The council explained the move as one that would ultimately help the NOPD because they hoped the additional funds would go to strengthen the DA’s witness-protection program, a program the NOPD depends on.

“Though it is money taken from police department, the money will assist the police department,” Council President Jackie Clarkson said. She said that the witness-protection program is the “best thing” the city is doing for criminal justice.

Despite the council’s intention to support witness-protection services, the legislative body has no legal authority to ensure that the money they allocate is spent for the purpose they intend.

“It’s up to the mayor and the departments,” Councilman Eric Granderson said.

“People get caught up in the budget approved on Dec. 1, but if you come here on any Monday or Thursday you see the budget being adjusted and amended. It’s a document that will keep on living and changing.”