Government & Politics
 

Cantrell administration admits to inaccuracies in 2019 budget proposal

Longtime city Budget Director Cary Grant admitted on Friday that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s first budget proposal, sent to the City Council on Nov. 1, contained glaring inaccuracies in the listed revenues from prior years. These numbers are necessary for the council to see whether various city revenue sources are rising or falling.

Grant apologized to the council on Friday — during the first hearing for the 2019  city budget — and adding that he had “never seen this happen before.”

While the inaccuracies caused confusion among the council, Councilman Jared Brossett said that it didn’t significantly impede the process.

“We caught it in time,” he said.

Still, the errors add another layer of frustration to a budget process that council members have already expressed dissatisfaction with. For months, council members have complained that the mayor’s timeline doesn’t provide adequate time for the council to comprehensively analyze the proposal and make necessary changes.

The council must adopt a budget for 2019 by Dec. 1. The Landrieu administration normally presented its proposed budget in October, which gave the council nearly two months to deliberate. This year, the Cantrell administration submitted its proposal on Nov. 1 — the legal deadline.

The city’s website uploaded a new version of the proposal on Thursday, which city officials say corrects the mistakes of the prior iteration.

The changes aren’t minor. For example, in the first version of the budget, non-recurring revenue from 2017 was listed at $10 million. In the new version, the number was increased to about $50 million. In the first version, general fund revenues were predicted to increase 13.5% from 2018 to 2019. In the new version, that rise was reduced to 1.8%.

“What this did was put us behind the magic eight ball when looking at the year-over-year changes,” said Councilman Joseph Giarrusso.

In an email to the council, Cantrell’s top deputy, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano, said that only numbers from 2017 and 2018 were changed. The forecasts for 2019 were not affected, he said.

But there is at least one change to the 2019 numbers — the non-recurring revenue estimate for 2019 jumped from $36 million to $46 million. Grant said that while this number changed, the city’s overall projected revenue for 2019 did not.

Council members started noticing the inaccuracies on Monday, Giarrusso said. By Wednesday, Councilman Jared Brossett emailed Montano to request accurate data.

“The budget book that was provided to you contained clerical errors that caused a great deal of confusion,” Montano responded. “I apologize it was sent in this form and fashion.” He added that the budget process “certainly has been a challenge at every corner.”

Montano said the problems have been corrected. But, he added, the proposal “is still a living document.”

Council members expressed their appreciation that Montano and Grant owned up to the mistake and were working to fix it. But Brossett says they will take “a deeper dive” into the proposal’s revenue numbers when Montano returns to the council chamber on Monday. “I think there will be more questions,” he said.

In his email to Montano, Brossett also asked for specifics on the city’s contingency plan if expected revenue increases, such as sales taxes from online sales, don’t materialize.

Giarrusso as well pointed to additional uncertainties in the proposal and said that more questions will be brought up as budget hearings continue next week.

“The biggest head scratcher for me is that you’re seeing personnel increases but you don’t see that in the [personnel schedules],” he said.

The budget priorities for the Finance Department, for example, include the addition of five new employees. But in the personnel schedule, which dictates how many full-time-equivalent employees each department has, there is no change from 2018 to 2019. Grant said that this was because no one has actually been hired for those positions yet.

With only 20 days to go until Nov. 29, when the council is scheduled to vote on the budget, questions remain over the proposal’s accuracy.

Montano said that he will work to make changes to the city’s budget process so that these issues don’t repeat in future budget proposals.

“There’s so much post mortem to be established in 2019,” he told the council.

Giarrusso agrees that changes are necessary, saying that the process can be difficult to follow even to those familiar with city budgets.

“We need to create a process that’s more digestible,” he said.

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About Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.