Update, 10:20 a.m.: Click here to read more about the New Orleans budget Mayor Mitch Landrieu presented Thursday.
At first blush, 2016 seemed to be shaping up as a year of relative plenty for New Orleans City Hall.
Sales-tax collections, bolstered by new businesses, have shot up. Rising property values have followed. And a $36 million BP oil settlement, landing in the city’s coffers late this year, certainly was welcome.
But while cash flows are up, so are potential liabilities. Costs associated with the city’s federal consent decrees, its pricey firefighters pension fund and a bitter, ongoing payment dispute between the city and its firefighters threaten its financial position. And while the BP cash is in hand, some may argue that squirreling it away might be best, if New Orleans wants to get its reserve fund near a level that would please bond-rating agencies.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in crafting the city’s financial road map, must maneuver those realities while catering to residents weary of blight, crime and sunken streets.
Landrieu will present his 2016 operating budget to the City Council on Thursday.
Though his fiscal priorities, and the actual 2016 operating budget figures, won’t be released publicly until then, some of what to expect can be gleaned from resident gripes, collected by the Landrieu administration in a round of community budget meetings this summer.
That’s because under Landrieu’s “budgeting for outcomes” process, the city says it aims to design budgets with residents in mind, with a stated goal of getting the biggest return on investment of public dollars.
Roadwork, blight remediation and safer neighborhoods topped a list of community concerns at those meetings. That means the mayor could push, as he has in the past, to boost funding to the Police Department and the Department of Public Works.
But the city’s “looming liabilities,” as the mayor has termed them, will undoubtedly limit what is actually allocated. Costly firefighters pension fund payments — which reached $43.4 million in 2015 — and federal consent decrees for the NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison are sure to factor prominently in the spending outline.
The city faces two lawsuits from firefighters over back pay and pension system funding which, combined, potentially amount to more than $200 million.
Though the courts have ruled the city owes firefighters money, the city has argued that the courts can’t force it to pay up immediately. Administration officials and the firefighters have been in settlement negotiations for months, but no agreements have been reached.
All that said, New Orleans’ 2016 budget is poised for some growth, due to booming sales tax receipts and other collections. City officials forecast $30 million in additional money in 2016 at a Revenue Estimating Conference meeting last month.
And the city is likely to end 2015 on a strong financial note. Though the administration budgeted $536.8 million in general fund revenue this year, the city brought in $60 million more than planned. That was largely due to the BP settlement, increased tax collections and the auction of many tax-delinquent properties.
Also at that meeting, city officials said they were working to build up a reserve fund that could be tapped into in case of a natural disaster or other emergency. Bond-rating agencies suggest that should amount to about $60 million. The city’s reserve, as of Sept. 28, stood at about $25 million, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin has said.
If his past presentations are any indication, Landrieu may well detail the city’s progress on that front Thursday, as well as tout his financial stewardship of the city over the past six years.
The mayor says he inherited a $97 million spending deficit upon taking office in 2010 but has since built a surplus. Last fall, Landrieu outlined how he has reduced the city’s reliance on one-time funds and how, under his administration, the city continues to “live within our means.”
The City Council has the final word on Landrieu’s budget, which it must adopt by Dec. 1. Over the next three weeks, city departments will present their individual budget requests to the council. In the past, some departments have asked for more cash than the mayor has proposed.
Final approval of the budget is scheduled for Nov. 19.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.