The New Orleans City Council approved the city’s 2022 budget on Wednesday, featuring $652 million in general fund spending to run the city’s daily operations and pay the city’s roughly 4,000 employees.
The budget was drafted by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and the council left that draft largely intact. The council did, however, add funding to some key areas, including eviction defense, a new “night mayor” office, surveillance cameras and domestic violence victim support.
One area of particular focus was whether the city would allocate money to relocate the residents of Gordon Plaza — a subdivision in the Desire neighborhood that was built on the site of a toxic landfill. The Cantrell administration dedicated $2 million in the city’s capital budget — a budget of major, long-term infrastructure projects funded with bond proceeds and federal funds — to hire a consulting firm to fully survey the site for redevelopment, a process that officials hope will result in buying out Gordon Plaza homeowners using federal funds, officials said.
Gordon Plaza residents and activists, who have been a constant presence throughout this year’s budget process, were unsatisfied with that, saying they wanted to see an actual line-item dedicated to their relocation. Residents have estimated it would take roughly $35 million to buy out the residents and cover relocation costs.
“If Gordon Plaza is a priority, then where is the $35 million line item?” advocate Angela Kinlaw said. “The $35 million should be a line item today.”
That didn’t happen this year. Councilman Jared Brossett offered an amendment to set aside $5 million in the operating budget to start a special fund dedicated to the relocation effort. But that was voted down in a 4-3 vote. Council members who opposed the measure said that it simply wasn’t enough money to cover relocation costs, and that Brossett, who is leaving office at the end of the year, didn’t have a plan for how to raise the rest of the $35 million.
“I don’t want to be part of something that’s just for show,” Councilman Jay Banks said. “I just don’t want to give these folks any false hopes.”
Other council members said that it made more sense to allocate the money from the city’s capital budget, rather than the $652 million operating budget. But the council can’t amend the five-year, capital budget with a simple vote. Any proposed amendment to the capital budget must first be referred to the City Planning Commission. On Wednesday, the council adopted a motion to begin that process.*
The 2022 budget passed on Wednesday represents the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began that the city has been able to plan a budget with some sense of normalcy. As the economy continues to recover, the city is expecting to collect nearly as much revenue as it collected in 2019. That’s largely dependent on whether tourism can bounce back and rejuvenate the city’s sales tax collections.
On top of the rosier economic outlook, the city is also expecting to get nearly $400 million in federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, a COVID relief bill passed by Congress in March. The city plans use that money to bolster city budgets through 2024 as the city’s economy recovers.
This year’s budget process was unique in that it came on the heels of an extensive mid-year budget adjustment process that determined how the city would spend the ARPA funds. The administration and council ultimately added $77 million in federal funds to the original 2021 budget. Most of the departmental budget increases from the original 2021 budget to the 2022 budget reflect a continuation of those mid-year adjustments.
The city’s personnel costs are also going up this year due to the City Council’s passage of a living wage requirement both for direct city employees and contractors. The city now has a minimum wage of $15 for all direct city employees, as well as contractors working on city projects.
The final 2022 budget is very similar to Cantrell’s original draft, but the council did add funding to some specific priorities. Taken together, the amendments add millions in new spending, which will be paid for with ARPA dollars, grant funding and small reductions in other areas of the budget.
The changes include allocating $500,000 to create a new “Office of Night Time Engagement.” 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.
The council also voted to expand a new “right to counsel” program, which will provide legal representation to residents facing evictions. Cantrell had originally proposed a $500,000 pilot program, but the council liked the idea so much it decided to bump that amount to $2 million.
“Making sure anyone at risk of losing their home in eviction court has access to an attorney is a matter of basic fairness and there is no more important time to do that than now. The Mayor and City Council should be proud,” Cashuana Hill, director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said in an emailed statement. “We hope Councilmembers will also support a Right to Counsel ordinance to create formal rules for the program and make it permanent.”
The council added $300,000 to the District Attorney’s Office to aid in domestic violence prosecutions and victim services. The council also added $85,000 to the Orleans Public Defenders budget, which will help maintain a long-sought goal of the office — parity with the DA’s office.
For years, OPD has argued that since it represenents an estimated 85 percent of criminal court defendants, the City Council should give it at least 85 percent of what it gives the DAs office.
Cantrell’s draft budget achieved that parity goal for the first time. Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Moñtano argued that the city was still achieving the parity goal because $200,000 out of the $300,000 being added to the DA budget is going into a victim support fund. That would mean the DA is only receiving an extra $100,000 for prosecuting crime, while OPD is getting an additional $85,000.
The council also approved an amendment from Councilwoman Kristen Palmer to add $500,000 to buy more surveillance cameras. Moñtano recommended against the amendment, pointing out that the capital budget already included $550,000 for new cameras. Palmer went forward with her amendment anyway, citing violent crime and a shortage of police officers. Moreno was the sole dissenting vote.
The issue that took up the most time at Wednesday’s meeting was the relocation of Gordon Plaza residents. Although Gordon Plaza wasn’t initially a focal point of this year’s budget talks, activists were able to push it to the forefront by attending most, if not all, council budget hearings and demanding concrete action.
The apartment complex was built on top of the old Agriculture Street landfill and was completed in 1981. It wasn’t until 1994 that the EPA surveyed the land and designated it 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, there is evidence that the area suffers higher than normal levels of cancer.
Many residents want out, but say they can’t move because no one will buy a home located on an EPA-designated toxic site. They say the city has a responsibility to buy them out for a fair-value and help pay for them to reallocate. That would take roughly $35 million, based on allocating $500,000 to relocate each affected family, activists said Wednesday.
The 2022 operational budget doesn’t include money to pay for that. But the capital budget does include $2 million to assess the site for redevelopment, a move that officials say will jump start the relocation process.
“This is a pretty big moment in terms of the city demonstrating commitment to this issue,” Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure Ramsey Green said on Wednesday.
Green explained that the administration’s strategy was to secure federal funding to redevelop the site, potentially as a renewable energy resource. Redeveloping the site with a clear project would allow the city to buy out homeowners as part of the land acquisition for that project. Green said that there were billions of federal dollars available for this type of project in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Gordon Plaza residents and activists, however, were adamant that a $2 million land survey was inadequate.
“How many more of us have to die?” Gordon Plaza resident Janice Stemley said during public comment.
Brossett said he wanted to move faster, and offered an amendment to the operating budget to allocate $5 million to create a special fund dedicated to the relocation effort. But the idea was criticized by administration officials, council members and Gordon Plaza residents.
The $5 million wouldn’t be enough to fund a relocation effort, and Brossett didn’t offer a plan for where the city would find the remainder of the necessary funds. The administration, meanwhile, said that the money wouldn’t help speed up their attempts to access federal dollars.
Moreno said that it would be better to allocate money through the capital budget, rather than the operating budget. However, the council doesn’t have the same level of control over the capital budget that it does over the operating budget.
Both budgets have to be approved by the council annually. But the capital budget has to conform to the city’s five-year capital program, which details projects that the city intends to complete using capital funds. In order to amend the five-year plan, it needs a recommendation from the City Planning Commission, or at the very least it needs to request a recommendation from the City Planning Commission.
Moreno introduced a draft motion requesting a CPC recommendation on whether to amend the five-year capital plan to include a relocation of Gordon Plaza residents. Council members voted to adopt the motion.
The council will not have to abide by the CPC recommendation, meaning that the council could ultimately amend the five-year plan regardless of what the CPC decides. Montaño said “the administration has absolutely no objection” to the motion.
Amending the five-year plan would likely fit within Cantrell’s plan. But if for whatever reason that plan fails, the council would have the authority to unilaterally dedicate funds to the relocation effort.
Brossett’s plan was ultimately shot down. Council members Brossett, Palmer and Cyndi Nguyen voted in favor, while council members Moreno, Banks, Joe Giarrusso and Donna Glapion voted against it.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the council introduced but did not vote on a motion to request a City Planning Commission report on the proposed Gordon Plaza relocation. In fact, the council took a vote and passed the motion. (Dec. 1, 2021)