Monday’s budget hearings ranged widely, including presentations before the New Orleans City Council by youth adjudication and health services, the coroner’s office and the city’s museum of art. But the early part of the proceedings belonged to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and at times the questioning got tense.
Councilman James Gray led the charge, pressing Executive Director Jeff Hebert, on why the authority hasn’t auctioned more than a handful of lots in the Lower 9th Ward.
“What are your plans right now for the 600 to 700 properties you hold in the Lower 9?” Gray asked. He represents that area and eastern New Orleans.
Hebert responded curtly: “Cut the grass.”
Hebert said his agency is using the same techniques as other cities facing blight caused by depopulation. The problem, he said, is that there’s simply a glut of properties with low market values.
“NORA does not expect it will ever sell all the property it owns in the Lower 9th Ward,” he said.
Lots in Lakeview, on the other hand, have been auctioned for more than $100,000, he said.
Hebert said that the agency has auctioned only five properties in the Lower 9th Ward. Without much interest from buyers, the agency needs to explore alternative land uses such as the Raingarden pilot program, which encourages the creation of gardens that absorb water runoff before it goes into storm drains.
The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority handles the sales, maintenance and planning for commercial and residential properties in New Orleans as well as the disposition of Road Home properties.
It’s budgeted to receive $2 million from the city in 2014, all of which comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s an increase from $1 million this year. The city provides no general-fund money for the agency.
Gray persisted in his questioning until Council President Jackie Clarkson interrupted him, saying that with the packed agenda Monday afternoon, a council committee meeting would be a better venue for his questions.
Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer encouraged the agency to add additional auctions, citing its most recent auctions as an example of the demand for real estate in New Orleans.
The agency plans to add online auctions in 2014, Hebert said.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell asked whether the state would transfer more properties to the redevelopment authority. Hebert could not give hard numbers because the state has not told his agency how many properties to expect.
The state has been warning people who are noncompliant under their Road Home agreements that one of their options is to transfer property ownership to the state, which will eventually shift the property to the control of the redevelopment authority.
Cantrell also asked about the demolition of a property purchased at auction. Hebert said the agency would coordinate more closely with the city in the future.
Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell asked about a property owner who took advantage of the expanded Lot Next Door program, which allows neighbors to buy adjacent Road Home properties.
Now that the neighbor owns it, “the Lot Next Door is now a storage area for a boat,” she said.
Clarkson defended the beleaguered agency. “When I came back to this council in 2007, back then I wanted to abolish NORA,” she said. “You are now one of the best things we have.”
Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ernestine Gray told the council that the Landrieu administration’s proposal to cut $509,000 from the court’s funding for 2014 would mean a dramatic reduction in positions mandated by the state, as well as elimination of the Evening Reporting Center, an alternative to housing juveniles in a detention center that has drawn praise from the court.
Gray said the cuts would be necessary even after pulling $409,000 from the court’s reserve funds.
The administration’s 2014 proposal is $3.025 million, a figure that includes the $409,000 from the court. The 2013 figure was $3.615 million and also included a contribution from the court’s reserve.
Gray said 10 support positions mandated by the Louisiana Children’s Code would be unfunded, including personnel that are necessary to handle hearings on delinquency, child support, juvenile traffic cases, and public and private adoptions.
The Council seemed most concerned about the elimination of $110,000 for the Evening Reporting Center, which sends juveniles between ages 10 and 17 to supervised after-school programs that typically feature one adult mentor for 10 youths and last about a month. The budget item paid for one full-time supervisor and two counselors.
The alternative is removing the juveniles from their homes to reside at the Youth Study Center, which costs $268 dollar per day per youth.
The Council was generally supportive of the court and pledged to work with the judges to find solutions.
YOUTH STUDY CENTER
There was happy news all-around at the hearing on the Youth Study Center’s budget. Superintendent Glenn Holt told the council that the center has successfully implemented a post-Katrina federal consent decree, that its new building is scheduled to open Jan. 25, and that his office has deemed the administration’s budget proposal, though $3,000 less than last year, to be adequate.
“We really can’t complain, Holt said.
Holt said the facility typically houses about 25 youths each day, with an average stay of around 18 days, at a cost of $268 dollars per youth per day.
His demographic breakdown showed 98 percent of the residents are African American and the most-frequent offenses (30 percent) are for “crimes vs. persons” — mostly armed robberies.
Holt said 22 percent of residents are on some form or psychotropic medication.
The Council had little but praise for Holt, especially for completing the consent decree.
The city originally budgeted the Health Department at $29.9 million this year but later raised it by about $1.5 million. The current proposal is about the same as last year’s adopted budget. About $13.5 million comes from the city’s general fund; the rest is outside sources.
Dr. Karen DeSalvo said she did not expect the reduction in funding to prevent her office from improving on 2013 results to date which she said had touched 134,000 residents – fully a third of the city’s population.
The department hopes to expand a program that identifies residents with special medical needs. DeSalvo said the department launched a pilot program to provide oxygen services after a federal study showed 617 residents likely needed such services – while the city knew of only 15. A door-to-door survey proved the feds were correct.
DeSalvo said the city still had plenty of work to do in curbing the rate of HIV infection – fourth highest in the nation.
EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICES
The $11.8 million would be allocated from the city’s general fund.* But EMS actually takes in more than that from federal and state grants, then earns additional revenues providing services at the many convention and sporting events held in the city.
Dr. Frank Minyard said the surprise announcement from contractors that the new office would be finished sometime next year has prompted him to reconsider his planned retirement after 40 years of service.
“I’ve been waiting so long for this, and was told it wouldn’t be ready for another two years, so I figured I’d just say goodbye,” Minyard told the Council. But now I think I might want to stick around to see it done.”
Minyard pressed the council to increase the proposed budget so he could hire an additional investigator and ambulance driver.
Council member Susan Guidry reminded Minyard that he continued to charge other parishes far less than the going rate for doing their autopsies.
Guidry said a study showed the average charge for out-of-jurisdiction autopsies is $1,000, while Minyard still charges $300. And while Minyard has agreed to charge new customers $500, that still leaves a lot of money on the table.
MUSEUM of ART
The council had reason to swoon over museum director Susan Taylor. When Guidry noted that the museum budget has been cut by 50 percent over the past six years, Taylor said, “We understand” the city’s financial issues, and the museum has ways to earn income.
No one objected.
*Correction: This story originally had incorrect figures for the Health Department’s adopted 2013 budget and the proposed 2014 budget. It also had incorrect figures for Emergency Medical Services’ 2013 adopted and 2014 proposed budget, as well as its revenues and expenditures. (Nov. 12, 2013)