Government & Politics

Landmarks budget down, SPCA up as City Council haggles over 2014 spending

With the Landrieu administration generally trying to restrain spending and one City Council member repeatedly measuring budget shortfalls against what he deems the cost of excessive incarceration in New Orleans, hearings on the city’s spending plan for 2014 continued Tuesday.

The morning featured tandem presentations by the Historic District Landmarks Commission and Vieux Carre Commission.

The two agencies said a principal achievement of 2013 was their relocation from the Amoco Building across Poydras Street to the service center for city permits on the seventh floor of City Hall — the so-called “One Stop Shop,” which operates under the aegis of the Department of Safety and Permits

The move and consolidation, combined with new permitting software, has decreased the average wait time for application approvals from 42 days to four, according to Historic District Landmarks Director Eliot Perkins.

Perkins said his goal for the coming year will be a “unified permitting process” which fully integrates his commission with Safety and Permits.

The landmarks commission’s proposed budget of $533,981 for 2014 is about $100,000 less than the proposed 2013 budget of $638,095.

Perkins declared the newly revived One Stop Adjudication hearings as an already positive outcome of the merger. So did Vieux Carre Commission Director Lary Hesdorferr, who proposed a 2014 budget for his agency of $397,231 a slight increase from 2013’s proposed $344,831.

Landmarks commission employee Lily McNee oversees the monthly hearings on issues ranging from T-shirt shops to paved front yards.

Hesdorferr listed the decision to broadcast commission meetings on public-access television as another 2013 success. He joked that he knows people are tuning in because of how frequently someone comes up to him and says, “I saw you on TV last night.”

Hesdorferr said the role of the Vieux Carre Commission is to “protect the brand of the Quarter” and, to that end, the commission has been working on revised guidelines for lighting and security cameras.

Afternoon budget presentations include the SPCA, the Arts Council and the New Orleans Council on Aging as well as a smattering of other groups under the The Department of Miscellaneous which, according to the 2013 Budget Book, encompasses various agencies and organizations not mentioned in the City Charter.

Last year Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2013 budget cut city spending for the SPCA and caused an uproar. This time around there were no surprises in the budget proposed and presented by Ana Zorilla, the society’s director. The 2013 Budget Book proposed allotting $1,796,429 to the SPCA. The figure for the coming year is $1,846,440, a $50,000 increase.

The Arts Council made a plea for additional funding beyond the $344,890 tentatively included in the budget for 2014.

Councilmember James Gray responded to the request by complaining, as he regularly does, about the city’s high incarceration rate. “It costs around $18,000 to keep someone in jail,” he noted. “With six fewer people [in the city lockup] we could increase your budget. We need to think long and hard about changing our priorities.”

The New Orleans Council on Aging failed to submit its budget in proper form and took heat from various council members.

With approximately 100 elderly residents present at the hearing, Councilmember Latoya Cantrell chided administrators of services for the aged. “We need an itemized budget. What was presented was insufficient,” Cantrell said.

Councilmember Susan Guidry reinforced the need for a proper budget proposal. “We passed the ordinance regarding a new budget template. … As Council President Jackie Clarkson says, ‘No template, no funding,’ ”

Clarkson chimed in hurriedly, saying she wouldn’t do that to “my seniors.”

The Council on Aging cited cuts from the state and federal government as reasons for their budget woes. In the current year they received $562,952 from the city’s general fund, supplemented with $414,964 in funding through the federal Community Development Block Grant program, for a total of $977,916. For 2014, they are in the budget for $662,952 but are looking for other funds from the city to make up for federal and state cuts.

Agriculture  Extension Agent Bertina McGee asked that her agency, the  LSU Ag Center, be reinstated in the city budget. The extension service was not funded last year by the city and is not recommended for funding in 2014.

Nonetheless, McGee offered a lengthy presentation listing activities from gardening to healthy food education in the community as well as in Orleans Parish Prison.

Gray again sounded off against excessive incarceration: “Your budget shortfall amounts to five prisoners, he told McGee, apologizing for sounding “like a broken record.”

Council President Jackie Clarkson surprised the group with good news. She said the council would reinstate $100,000, an announcement that drew a burst of applause from the council’s audience, the first of the day.

“I have never received so many emails” requesting that the funding be reinstated, Clarkson said.

Evacuteer, an organization that recruits and trains New Orleanians to assist in the event of a future evacuation,  asked for additional funds as well. The agency had requested $90,000 but would receive only $76,500 under the budget as currently drafted.

Kristin Gisleson Palmer* acknowledged that when there have been no major storms, “it is harder to find the funds for this.” She vowed to continue seeking money to make up the shortfall.

*Correction: The original version of this story misstated Kristin Gisleson Palmer’s name. (Nov. 6, 2013)

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