Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Wednesday proposed an operating budget for 2015 that includes the first police raises in eight years, reflecting both the persistence of violent crime as a top concern in New Orleans and a relatively healthy increase in tax revenue.
Under Landrieu’s budget, which now goes to the City Council for debate, members of the New Orleans Police Department would receive a 5 percent raise across the board, averaging about $2,200 annually. It would cost the city about $4.2 million a year.
But the proposal did not blunt criticism from local police groups, who have been vocal opponents of the mayor’s approach to improving the department. In a news release, the Fraternal Order of Police called the raises a “slap in the face.”
Still, rising property values and a growing retail sector have eased the city’s budget problems, at least for now. After years of cutbacks, nearly every city department will see its funding remain steady or increase next year under Landrieu’s proposal. As previously announced, the minimum wage for city workers is going up, and the mayor said City Hall soon will offer paid maternity leave for the first time.
“Revenue is up, and so we can invest more in what the people of New Orleans say they want,” Landrieu said during a morning news conference. “More in public safety, more in job creation, more in recreation, more for streets and street lights, and more to fight blight.”
At the same time, the mayor acknowledged “looming liabilities on the horizon.”
He cited particularly the growing cost of funding the city’s pension fund for firefighters. Having been ordered by a judge to come up with more money to offset the fund’s ailing investments, Landrieu has proposed setting aside an extra $11.7 million for the fund in 2015, which would bring the city’s total contribution for next year to $43.4 million.
That increase alone would be enough money to hire 200 new police officers, Landrieu said. “With that money, we could cut the grass on every blighted lot in the city,” he said. “With that money, we could pay for 2½ years’ worth of maintenance to the city’s entire streetlight system.”
Nick Felton, who heads the local firefighters union, offered guarded comments on the mayor’s latest concession to the firefighters’ demands. He said it was a “move in the right direction” but added that he could not be sure it would satisfy the judge who is overseeing the firefighters’ lawsuit against the city.
Last year, the court ordered Landrieu’s administration to immediately come up with $17.5 million to cover what the city owed for 2012. That does not include additional sums for every other year since 2010, when Landrieu took office, though negotiations over the pension fund’s accounting methods will probably shrink the overall amount the city has to put up.
Orleans Parish Prison, which is now subject to a federal court order outlining mandatory reforms, represents a growing expense as well, and Landrieu’s budget sets aside an extra $4.4 million to pay for improvements.
That may not be enough to pay for everything the jail needs, which the city expects could cost from $10 million to $22 million per year. So the mayor is counting in part on voters to approve a ballot measure on Nov. 4 that would redirect money from an existing property tax, shifting the cash from building projects to operating expenses. That would provide about $8 million a year.
Still, despite rising costs, Landrieu presented a relatively healthy budget outlook for 2015, at least compared with the recent past.
Sales tax from new retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Costco has provided more money than expected. Overall, the city is projecting revenue of about $537 million next year, up from $520 million in 2014.
Under Landrieu’s spending plan, much of the extra cash would go toward public safety. The Fire Department’s budget would climb 14 percent to nearly $98 million.
Emergency Medical Services, the Coroner’s Office, the Youth Study Center, Municipal and Criminal District Courts and the District Attorney’s Office all would see modest increases in funding as well.
One of the few areas of spending that would shrink under Landrieu’s plan is Juvenile Court, which the mayor has been trying to downsize for years. It would get about $1.9 million from the general fund, compared with $2 million this year.
Responding to complaints about deteriorating streets and broken street lights, the mayor proposes to increase funding for the Department of Public Works by nearly half, with the extra money going toward repairs.
The NOPD’s budget would grow by $2.6 million to $129.6 million. Along with the proposed raises, the department would get money for 150 new recruits and 100 new vehicles. An extra $1.7 million would go toward overtime pay in an effort to put more cops on the street, while another $500,000 would be used for marketing for a recruitment campaign.
Whether all of that will be enough to actually boost the number of police officers is unclear. Officers have been leaving the force faster than the city can hire new ones.
The pay hike, which could help with both retention and recruitment, drew a mixed reaction Wednesday from the rank-and-file.
“I’m happy that the city recognizes that police officers need a raise,” said Donovan Livaccari, an attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge. “However, 5 percent is woefully inadequate to bring the department up to having competitive salaries with other law enforcement agencies in the region.”
He pointed to a recent survey by the Civil Service Department that found NOPD salaries fell well short of regional levels, particularly among higher-ranking cops. Sergeants, for instance, would need a 26 percent increase to hit regional levels, while lieutenants and captains lagged by about 30 percent, the study found.
Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the mayor acknowledges that police officers deserve more. But he said the city’s survey of salaries at other law enforcement agencies in southeast Louisiana showed the NOPD generally pays the best. The Civil Service study looked at the entire Southeast U.S.
The number of sworn officers in New Orleans has fallen to 1,145, including 55 now in a pair of police academy classes, according to the NOPD. That’s down nearly 30 percent from the 1,546 officers on the job in 2009, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The last across-the-board pay increase for NOPD officers came in 2007.