Roadwork and blight remediation were among the top concerns New Orleans residents voiced during a community meeting Monday night held to gather input before Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration makes decisions on the city’s 2016 budget.
Residents of City Council District D packed the Beacon Light International Baptist Cathedral to pepper Landrieu, City Council members and department heads with complaints and questions at the first of five meetings being held throughout the city.
A recurring theme was residents’ frustration at a seeming lack of responsiveness by city officials after issues, including blight, broken streetlights and road problems, are brought to their attention.
Jocelyn Evans, with the Gentilly Heights Neighborhood Watch Association, said her area has spent “10 years waiting for our neighborhood to be whole, 10 years waiting for street repairs, 10 years trying to get rid of blight and 10 years trying to get schools and neighborhood resources.”
“We’d say thank you, but there’s nothing to be thankful for,” Evans said.
Sheila Hyde, from the Pontilly neighborhood, said a lack of responsiveness from the city is proving to be a barrier to residents who want to volunteer to reduce blight.
“We have five or six residents willing to cut the grass in the neighborhoods; we just need you to help us,” Hyde told the officials. “I called and have sort of hit a roadblock.”
Landrieu, in his opening remarks, reiterated his vision for the city that would see it emerge from the now nearly decade-old recovery from Hurricane Katrina better than it was before the storm. Still, he sympathized with residents and said, “If you have a blighted house next to you, it can seem like nothing has happened.”
The meeting signaled the beginning of the process of crafting the city’s roughly $500 million annual operating budget.
In many ways, the city is heading into this budget season in good shape. Sales tax collections increased by 9 percent in 2014 for the second year in a row, and the recent settlement with BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is set to pour tens of millions of dollars into city coffers.
But Landrieu said the city’s finances are, in considerable part, “in the hands of three judges” overseeing cases involving a suit by firefighters for $75 million in pension payments, a consent decree for reforming the NOPD and disputes between the city and Sheriff Marlin Gusman over the funding of the new jail.
City officials sought to head off two of the prominent complaints: the ever-present issue of crime and the broken streets that can make driving across the city treacherous. Landrieu and Councilman Jared Brossett, who represents District D, acknowledged both those issues as challenges even before questions began.
Brossett pointed to the NOPD recruitment efforts and said it is important the “police force be as strong as it can be.”
Landrieu, who said he receives daily calls from his mother complaining both about the sad state of the streets and the traffic delays caused by work aimed at improving them, said the city has improved hundreds of miles of roads, and “we’re going to keep doing that as fast as we can.”
Larger issues were at play, as well. Several speakers called on the city to work harder to ensure economic opportunities are available to low-income residents and are properly being shared across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Issues about the crime rate, particularly shootings and murders, also were raised.
“I run out every week to hear ‘boom, boom, boom’ to see who’s lying in the street now,” said one resident, who said a neighbor was shot while she was sitting on her porch recently.
Several speakers complained about children collecting money at intersections, often claiming to be raising money as part of a school fundraiser. Perhaps spurred by large groups of children who were darting in and out of traffic along Elysian Fields Avenue prior to the meeting, the speakers said the city should crack down on the practice to prevent children from being injured.
A contingent from the Public Defender’s Office called for the city to fix a $1 million budget cut projected for that office next year.
Four more meetings are scheduled, all at 6 p.m., with a resource fair for a half-hour beforehand.
The District C meeting will be Tuesday at the Alice M. Harte Charter School, 5300 Berkley Drive, Algiers.
The District B meeting will be Wednesday at the KIPP Central City Academy — Woodson, 2514 Third St.
The District A meeting will be July 30 at Lakeview Christian Center, 5885 Fleur de Lis Drive.
The District E meeting will be Aug. 10 at the Sanchez and Copelin-Bird Multi-Service Center, 1616 Caffin Ave.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.