The New Orleans City Council is currently considering several changes to Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed 2022 city budget before approving a final version next week.
According to interviews and statements from several council offices, council members are preparing to consider millions in additional spending in some areas of the budget. That includes new spending to relocate residents of Gordon Plaza, create an “Office of Night Time Economy,” add crime cameras, fund domestic violence programs in the District Attorney’s Office and increase funding to provide legal representation for residents facing evictions.
Every year by Dec. 1, the City Council has to approve a budget for the following year. The process begins with the mayor submitting an initial draft to the council in October or November. The council then holds department-by-department hearings to give them the chance to justify their funding or argue they need more than what the mayor allotted.
The council wrapped up those hearings last week, and is currently scheduled to meet on Wednesday, Dec. 1 to consider amendments to Cantrell’s draft and approve a final version.
The biggest change the council will consider is allocating $35 million in capital funds to relocate the residents of Gordon Plaza — a subdivision in the Desire neighborhood that was built on the site of a toxic landfill. Gordon Plaza residents have said in the past that it would take $35 million to fully buy out and relocate everyone.
In 1994, years after Gordon Plaza was built and inhabited, the EPA designated the land as a Superfund site — part of a federal program to clean up toxic waste pollution. Although the EPA went forward with a mitigation plan in the 90s, a 2019 study found that the Census tract that includes Gordon Plaza had the second highest consistent rate of cancer in Louisiana.
Many residents want out, and have consistently lobbied the city to help them move. This year, Gordon Plaza residents and activists pushed the issue to the forefront by attending most, if not all of the budget hearings, handing out pamphlets and submitting public comments to ensure the city couldn’t forget their demands. And it appears that their constant presence made an impression on the council.
Night Time Economy, eviction defense lawyers and criminal justice priorities
The council will also consider adding funds to the budget to create an “Office of Night Time Economy.” Similar to the “Nightlife Mayor” in New York City or “bar czar” in Orlando, the new office would help develop and manage the city’s nightlife and associated quality of life issues.
“I’m proud that we are investing and creating the Office of Night Time Economy, an effort I began at the beginning of my first term,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said in a statement. “Our musicians, artists, bars, restaurants, and neighborhoods have long needed a government advocate who can work to balance the quality of life issues of our residents while supporting our City’s unique cultural identity.”
Several council members also want to increase funding for a new “right to counsel” program Cantrell is introducing next year, which will provide legal representation to residents facing evictions. Administration officials have called it a “pilot program” funded with $500,000 — admittedly too small to fill the entire need. Advocates and some council members want to increase the program from $500,000 to $2 million.
The council will also consider an amendment to allocate $500,000 to buy surveillance cameras to add to the city’s rapidly growing surveillance apparatus.
“I’ve asked the administration to fund additional crime cameras throughout the City,” Palmer said. “Investments in technology has been a critical part of the City’s efforts to prevent and solve violent crime.”
Palmer also said she was also planning to request funding to “restore our public greenspaces that were damaged by hurricanes in the past two years.”
Councilwoman Helena Moreno will be offering amendments to increase funding to the District Attorney’s Office and Criminal District Court to support domestic violence prosecutions and victim services.
During budget hearings, Criminal District Court officials requested additional domestic violence case managers. District Attorney Jason Williams, meanwhile, asked for an additional $300,000 for several line items related to domestic violence and human trafficking, including additional investigators, counselors, reentry programs and housing for survivors.
If the council does increase the DA budget, it could compromise a long-held council priority — parity between the DA and Orleans Public Defenders office. The Orleans Public Defenders office has long argued that since it defends 85 percent of defendants in criminal court, the city should give it at least 85 percent of the funding it provides to the DA’s office.
Cantrell’s 2022 draft budget accomplishes that goal for the first time. But an increase to the DA’s budget, without a proportional increase to the Orleans Public Defenders, would leave Orleans Public Defenders without the 85 percent parity they’ve been fighting for.
Councilman Joe Giarrusso told The Lens he planned to request additional funding for a program that helps city employees navigate New Orleans’ complex public school system through the local nonprofit EdNavigator. He also wants more funding for Youth Force NOLA, another local nonprofit that helps connect New Orleans students with employment opportunities.
“We know improving public safety can start with better educational opportunities,” he said.
In an interview, Councilman Jay Banks said his staff was still studying and developing specific budget amendments, but that his overall focus was shifting funding from dealing with the aftermath of crime to stopping it before it occurs.
“I think if we invest in our children’s education, we will not need to waste money on incarceration,” Banks said. “When you look at the kind of money we’re spending on the police force, we would not have to spend that much if we didn’t have the problem that we had.”
Banks said he wanted the city to invest more in education (including early childhood education) and public recreation to keep kids on track and out of trouble.
“We’ve gotta invest early so we don’t need to waste money,” Banks said.
All of the specific budget amendments mentioned by council members would increase city spending, rather than reduce it. So it’s not entirely clear whether they will offer additional amendments to make cuts in other parts of the budget. Those details will become more clear on Wednesday, Dec. 1, when the council considers the amendments and passes a final 2022 budget.