Mayor Mitch Landrieu marked the closing days of 2014 on Monday with an exhaustive account of things he felt went right in the city this year, from the opening of a hospital in New Orleans East to a burgeoning retail sector.
Joined by his top deputies, department heads and City Council members for an end-of-year news briefing, he said the city’s murder rate has continued to trend downward, though a final count won’t be possible until Jan. 1 and progress this year certainly will not match the nearly 20 percent decline seen in 2013.
Landrieu also alluded to a “major” announcement coming next week about the city’s effort to eradicate homelessness among military veterans, part of a national initiative led by first lady Michelle Obama. Without offering specifics, the mayor hinted at significant progress.
Addressing the local economy, Landrieu said New Orleans attracted 3,700 new jobs in 2014, pointing to new Wal-Mart stores, the return of Chiquita Brands International to the port and the growth of local startups like Renaissance RX.
In summing up 2014, Landrieu reached for the same New Orleans comeback story that helped get him re-elected early this year, and the same metaphors: “We have continued to run to the fire,” he said, recounting his administration’s efforts to improve local government by rewriting civil service rules and reshaping the Sewerage & Water Board.
“I am very optimistic that our best days are ahead of us in the city of New Orleans,” Landrieu said, “but we no doubt have our challenges.”
The mayor acknowledged that violent crime remains persistently high despite the drop in murders. He mentioned the firefighters’ pension fund, which is still draining the city’s budget. And he pointed again to the alarming rate of unemployment among the city’s working-age black men.
On top of all that, Landrieu said, “We continue to have major infrastructure and housing needs, which we have got to deal with.”
After the mayor’s remarks, his top appointees took turns recounting in minute, statistical detail the work their departments have done this year. But the most pointed remarks came from City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who pinned her hopes for 2015 in large part on the city’s new police chief, Michael Harrison.
“The biggest thing that I’m most excited about is our mayor pushing that reset button and getting a new chief in town,” Cantrell said, making clear that she was happy to see Ronal Serpas leave the job in August for a teaching post at Loyola University.
Cantrell said Harrison has “hit the ground running, immediately separating himself from the former leadership, taking full responsibility for the existing conditions that continue to plague our force.”
As usual, crime and the Police Department featured prominently during the mayor’s presentation, and both Landrieu and Harrison addressed at some length questions about recent high-profile incidents in the French Quarter.
In ticking off this year’s accomplishments, Landrieu said his administration has made progress in implementing the court-ordered blueprint that governs reforms at the Police Department, mentioning for example the new office at City Hall for managing the off-duty security shifts that officers work for extra money.
Responding to questions about signs that have appeared around the Quarter cautioning people to walk in groups, the mayor acknowledged, “When violent crime is ticking up, it makes everyone feel unsafe.”
He emphasized steps the city is taking to attract new officers, particularly the 5 percent pay raise for Police Department members that takes effect in 2015.
Judy Reese Morse, a deputy mayor who oversees the various programs aimed at cutting the murder rate — known collectively as NOLA for Life — said the city will focus on expanding its mentoring and conflict-resolution efforts next year.
Other top lieutenants in the Landrieu administration covered 2014 highlights ranging from the number of potholes filled to the number of smoke detectors installed.
Cedric Grant, who heads capital projects and now also serves as executive director at the Sewerage & Water Board, updated one of his favorite statistics, telling reporters the city has now met with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about federally funded projects on 635 separate occasions. Overall, he said, 136 projects have been completed since 2010, to the tune of $223 million. “Every neighborhood has seen benefits,” Grant said.
This year, he said, the city has filled 25,000 potholes, installed 3,700 new street signs and repaired more than 3,000 street lights.
Aimee Quirk, the mayor’s outgoing adviser on economic development, said new retail outlets — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, the Riverwalk outlet mall — have helped boost sales tax revenue for the city this year by a projected $10 million, or roughly 7 percent.
She also highlighted the city’s efforts to steer city spending toward businesses owned by women and minorities, known as disadvantaged business enterprises. At last count, she said, more than 37 percent of the value of city contracts, or about $21.3 million, has gone to such DBEs.
Fire Superintendent Timothy McConnell said structure fires have dropped 6 percent this year compared with 2013, and the department has installed 2,500 new smoke alarms. His goal for next year is to triple that figure, he said.
Health Department Director Charlotte Parent said the city enrolled more than 14,000 people in health insurance plans this year using the federal exchange set up under President Barack Obama’s signature health initiative, the Affordable Care Act. She said that dropped the uninsured rate in New Orleans by 8 percent.
Scott Hutcheson, the mayor’s adviser on the cultural economy, said 60 different projects using the state’s film tax credits were shot in New Orleans this year, plus 130 others. He said those projects spent $510 million in the city — up by $100 million over last year — on everything from catering to dry cleaning.
“That money stays here; it works here,” Hutcheson said.