Top officials in New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration appeared before the City Council’s budget committee on Tuesday to detail the administration’s plans to allocate the first $77 million out of the federal funds the city received through the American Rescue Plan, a COVID-related financial relief measure that Congress approved in March.
The committee forwarded the proposal to the full City Council, but didn’t take a vote on whether to recommend its approval. The decision to forgo a committee vote was primarily due to inconsistencies between the proposed spending ordinances and the administration’s Tuesday presentation.
New Orleans expects to receive nearly $380 million in ARP funds. Instead of spending the money all at once or on special projects, the administration’s broad plan is to spread the dollars out over the next few years, to bolster department budgets until the city is projected to recover to pre-pandemic revenue levels in 2025.
The city cut $92 million in general fund spending in the 2021 budget compared to what was originally planned for 2020. The proposed $77 million would largely be used to restore those cuts for 23 different departments and agencies, along with some new initiatives that the city says it would have funded in a normal budget year.
Technically, the entire $77 million in ARP funds would go to a fund housed within the Fire Department. The city would then transfer the same amount of money from the Fire Department’s general fund budget to other departments and agencies. That’s being done in part to simplify the city’s annual audit, according to Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell.
“It could have been police, it could have been EMS, it could have been any number of agencies,” Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said on Tuesday. “But for accounting purposes we wanted to make sure it was done as cleanly as possible.”
Tidwell also said the maneuver was being done to ensure compliance with federal rules for how ARP funds can be used. He did not specify which regulations he was referring to, and city officials did not respond to follow-up questions.
As for where the money will ultimately land, Montaño said it was going to “mission critical” expenses, particularly within public safety agencies. The money will also be spent to fund jobs that can help raise more revenue for the city, like Department of Safety and Permits employees who can collect fines and fees and speed up construction projects.
The budget committee didn’t vote on the ordinances on Tuesday, in large part due to inconsistencies between the dollar figures in the administration’s powerpoint presentation and the proposed ordinance. The ordinance, for example, adds $17 million to the NOPD budget, while the presentation says the amount is only $5 million.
Montaño explained that all the money that wasn’t included in the presentation is related to city worker furloughs that were instituted in late 2020 to deal with a COVID-related budget shortage. The city ended the furloughs ahead of schedule in early 2021. The additional money is to account for the premature end to the furloughs as well as employee reimbursements for lost wages during the furloughs.
“All of this needs to be presented to us in writing for us to review,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said.
Moreno and other council members also raised issues with a lack of details surrounding some departments, especially the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which would receive a $7.4 bump through the Cantrell administration proposal.
The ordinances were forwarded to the full City Council without a committee vote. Normally, committees will vote on whether to recommend legislation before advancing it to the full council. But Moreno said they didn’t have enough information yet.
“I don’t mind moving these items to the full council,” Moreno said. “But I don’t think we’re prepared at this moment, based on the outstanding questions that we have, to vote in support or not support at this time.”
Montaño stressed that the issue was urgent. He noted that the current agenda for the council’s Thursday meeting indicates the council will defer the issue instead of voting on it. He urged the council to reconsider.
“We would encourage the council not to have it as a deferral,” he said. “We’re at a critical point right now, there is a serious cash problem.”
Also notable at Tuesday’s budget committee meeting was the absence of the budget committee chairman — Councilman Jared Brossett. Brossett was arrested on Monday morning for allegedly driving while intoxicated after the police found him asleep behind the wheel at a gas station.
Brossett, who is currently running a campaign for an open at-large City Council seat, has been arrested for driving while intoxicated twice before, most recently in 2020, when he drove a city-owned vehicle into oncoming traffic on Elysian Fields Avenue.
Brossett’s political future is currently unclear. For now, Moreno has taken charge as chair of the budget committee.
Where does the money go
Under the Cantrell administration’s plan, a lot of the $77 million in ARP funds would be slated for public safety agencies and the criminal justice system.
According to the presentation, the NOPD would receive an additional $5.1 million for 150 new license plate readers, IT support, overtime and officer promotions. The Fire Department would receive an additional $6.4 million, almost all of which is dedicated to payroll, like overtime, promotions and hurricane season preparation. EMS would also receive $1.3 million for payroll costs, including raises and new staff.
The Department of Health would receive another $275,000, according to the presentation, for the city’s new alternative dispatch program, the goal of which is to have mental health professionals respond to certain 911 calls instead of the NOPD.
ARP money would also be sent to a number of agencies that aren’t directly controlled by the central city government, largely related to the criminal justice system, including the District Attorney’s office, the Public Defender’s Office and several local courts.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office would receive an additional $7.4 million for “addressing structural deficit.”
The District Attorney’s office would receive $1.6 million, $300,000 of which would be used to fund the office’s Restorative Justice Diversion program, which focuses on redirecting cases outside the criminal justice system to find alternative, community-based justice solutions. The rest would be used to address a “structural budget deficit.”
The Orleans Public Defenders office would get another $258,000 for two purposes. The first is to bolster a partnership with Municipal Court to try and help repeat defendants with mental illness. The second is to hire attorneys and investigators to deal with the impacts of non-unanimous jury convictions, which were legal in Louisiana from the late 1800s until 2019. The U.S. Supreme Court found last year that the practice was unconstitutional. Its ruling applied to some, but not all, past cases. In a subsequent ruling this year, the court opted out of extending the 2020 ruling to all past cases. But DA Jason Williams, who took office this year, decided to take on a review of those cases.
Juvenile Court, Municipal and Traffic Court and Criminal District Court would also receive some additional funds to make up for budget cuts implemented at the beginning of the year.
The city would add $3 million to its Clean Up NOLA initiative — an effort to reduce litter and blight throughout the city that has focused on public education and illegal dumping enforcement through the installation of crime cameras. Part of that $3 million would be used to open new garbage disposal sites on the West Bank, East Bank and eastern New Orleans. Currently, residents need to drive to a landfill in Avondale to drop off waste too big for normal garbage pickup, according to Montaño’s presentation.
The $3 million for Clean Up NOLA would also be used to ramp up illegal dumping enforcement without having to rely on the NOPD. That plan goes hand and hand with another Cantrell administration effort — passing new laws that would allow the NOPD to deputize citizen municipal employees to issue municipal court citations for certain crimes. The council hasn’t approved that yet, however. If the council doesn’t approve those new laws, the city would use fire inspectors from the New Orleans Fire Department, according to the city’s Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Wizby.
The Department of Sanitation would receive an additional $3.6 million, according to the presentation. That money would go to a number of initiatives, including 20 new crime cameras to catch illegal dumping, special event cleanups, more recycling carts and the resumption of street sweeping and graffiti removal in the French Quarter and Downtown Development District.
The Department of Property Management would receive $829,000, according to the presentation, for HVAC maintenance, building repair, generators, fire suppression systems and a few new employees. That money would also cover the hiring of additional staff and security to seven city cemeteries.
Property Management Director Martha Griset said that new security staff would eventually be paid for by money generated through the cemeteries after the administration implements a plan to better monetize the cemeteries, and that security was key to the monetization plan.
“Jay Banks’ office has been working wonderfully with us on creating a plan going forward to restrict the number of tourists and also to figure out a way to monetize that,” Griset said. “The security issue comes with that. If we’re restricting the number of people going into a cemetery we need a means of doing so.”
A significant amount of ARP money would be headed to the Office of Business and External Affairs, an office created by the Cantrell administration in 2020 and includes a wide range of city departments, including the City Planning Commission, the Department of Safety and Permits, Code Enforcement, the Historic District Landmark Commission and more.
The City Planning Commission would get $180,000, according to the city’s presentation, to “rebuild” its staff. That office went from 27 positions at the end of 2019 to just 14 positions currently. The additional funds would allow the City Planning Commission to bring staffing closer to 2019 levels.
Code Enforcement would receive $101,000 for additional staff for lot abatement and for more robust data collection and analysis.
The Department of Safety and Permits would receive $318,000 for a number of new hires related to Short Term Rental enforcement, permitting, plan review, zoning issues and violation adjudications.
Peter Bowen, director of OBES, said that his office was planning to combine the Department of Safety and Permits and Code Enforcement into a single office called the “Office of Licensing and Regulations.”
Cantrell’s proposed spending plan would also dedicate $5.8 million to a fund to pay unpaid court judgments against the city, $1.5 million for early childhood education and $2 million for city vehicles and equipment.