Mayor Mitch Landrieu will hold his fifth and final town-hall meeting on the 2015 city budget tonight at 6 p.m. in City Council District D. It will be held Arthur Ashe Charter School, 1456 Gardena Dr.
The Lens will live blog the meeting here.
Tuesday night’s meeting in District B was packed, and attendees had a wide range of comments and concerns for Landrieu to address. The meeting began with a pointed call for property tax reform from At-large Councilwoman Stacy Head. Head, chairwoman of the council’s budget committee, is pushing the city to lift property tax exemptions for nonprofits, particularly on properties where a commercial business is operating. Head’s campaign comes as Landrieu is urging voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the city to double tax rates for police and fire services. The issue has come up at a number of this year’s budget meetings.
Landrieu said that Assessor Erroll Williams has been working to clean up exemptions on the tax rolls, at the council’s urging, but he added that the city still needs new revenue sources to meet its obligations — including the costs of two federal consent decrees over the police department and Orleans Parish Prison and a $17.5 million judgment against the city for overdue payments to the firefighters’ pension system — and fund its biggest priorities, such as growing the police department to 1,600 officers.
“Even if we did all of that perfectly, and even if we collected everything we need to collect, we would still have a huge gap. How many police officers do we have? 1,133,” he said, then encouraged audience members to approve the tax proposal.
Landrieu has previously said the city’s $500 million annual budget is as much as $200 million short of what it would need to fix the city’s crumbling neighborhood streets, increase the police department, properly fund parks and recreation programs and pay the bills on federal mandates. So, he said, the city has to make some choices.
An easy choice, for Landrieu at least, involves the jail. The Sheriff’s Office will soon open a 1,438-bed building that will replace most of the jail’s current facilities. But it won’t accommodate certain inmates with medical and mental health needs, meaning it’s out of compliance with the consent decree. Sheriff Marlin Gusman favors building yet another facility to house that group, and provide additional beds to meet the city’s jail population needs. The building would go on a plot of land — once said to be intended for “green space,” between the 1,438-bed jail and Gusman’s new Kitchen/Warehouse facility. Landrieu, who initially seemed to be open to the additional building, is now pushing for renovations to the Phase II building to meet medical and mental health needs.
“Do you want to build more jail cells or do you want a better NORD [New Orleans Recreation Department]?” Landrieu said at the meeting. “I don’t think we have to build a bigger prison. That’s my personal opinion.”
However, he added that the decision may ultimately lie with U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the consent decree.
“The federal government is retaining the power to tell you what to do, and the state government is retaining the power” of the purse, he said. “That puts more and more responsibility on municipal governments.”