New Orleans is set to bring in a record amount of revenue in 2016 — nearly $56 million more than it did last year — but the $592.7 million operating budget that Mayor Mitch Landrieu presented to the City Council on Thursday isn’t laden with the sort of spending most residents associate with flush times for local government.
Several hours after the budget was presented, administration officials said they had struck a deal with the firefighters union to settle two long-running lawsuits that are potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars and are tied to a significant hike in pension payments that will be eating up much of the new cash the city expects to have next year.
While details of the deal will not be announced until Friday, it likely will require a tax increase and could require the city to dip into its reserves for some kind of immediate payment.
A variety of new programs and funding increases are included in the 2016 spending plan — including efforts to beef up the Police Department’s ranks, additional street repairs, adding recreation staffers to work at newly opened centers and initiatives aimed at workforce development and ensuring minority-owned firms get a fair share of contracts set aside for disadvantaged businesses.
But those efforts represent a small share of where the new money in the city’s coffers will go. Most of it, about $45 million, will be needed to help the city meet some unpleasant financial realities, including making sure the operation of the city’s new jail meets standards set out in a federal consent decree and making big payments to the firefighters pension fund.
Landrieu touted the proposed budget as evidence his administration has righted the city’s finances and that, after years of cuts and scrimping, the city is moving onto the right track.
“Together, we have a very clear strategy for success: Cut with a scalpel so that government is smart, fast, entrepreneurial, and we can then take the savings and invest in the citizens’ priorities, and our economy will grow,” Landrieu said.
The council will review the proposed budget and probably make minor adjustments to it before adopting it Nov. 19.
Although the budget does not include any new taxes, the mayor said he plans to ask voters next year to approve a $100 million bond issue for street repairs. Street parking at meters also would become more expensive, particularly in the Central Business District, and motorists would have to feed the meter later into the evening.
In addition to the nearly $600 million operating budget, the administration presented a $483 million capital budget, including $150 million for road repairs and associated stormwater and drainage improvements. A new building to house incarcerated juveniles awaiting trial as adults is planned. About $25 million in FEMA money will go toward rebuilding the Municipal Yacht Harbor, and $300 million is budgeted for ongoing work on a new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Administration officials are the first to acknowledge and even draw attention to the fact that much of the new money in the budget isn’t going to meet residents’ priorities and are quick to blame their disputes with Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the firefighters.
Referring to the series of community budget meetings he held this summer, Landrieu said residents were more concerned with roads and crime than they were with those issues.
“Nobody talked to me about the jail. Nobody talked to me about the firefighters — unless they packed the meeting,” he said.
The proposed operating budget is about $97 million higher than it was when Landrieu took office in 2010 and said he had inherited a deficit of that amount from Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration. At the time, the administration made steep cuts and furloughed city employees to help cover the gap.
Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin described the time since then as “treading water” while waiting for growth in city revenues to catch up.
“There’s been a lot of pent-up demand in the budget this year that we now have the revenues to meet those needs,” Kopplin said.
The projected budget has swelled considerably since projections put it at about $568.9 million just last month, as officials have taken higher projected property tax collections, more parking meter revenue and additional money from fees and licenses into account.
Overall, taxes will bring in about $355.6 million, with property taxes making up about a third of that total. That projection assumes the council will vote to “roll forward” property tax rates rather than “roll back” the rates to a level that would keep the 2016 revenue at the same amount as in 2015. That assumption was not included in the September forecast.
The budget calls for increasing parking meter rates from $1.50 an hour to $3 in the French Quarter and CBD, and to $2 elsewhere in the city. It also would require people parking at meters to pay until 10 p.m., four hours later than now.
Those changes are expected to generate about $2.4 million from the meters themselves and $1.9 million from additional parking tickets, while costing an extra $1 million for enforcement.
The rest of the forecast revenue increase comes from plugging in about $23.8 million from one-time sources — either special city funds, sales of tax-delinquent properties or federal health care payments.
The biggest single increase in the spending budget is an additional $25 million for Gusman’s operations at the jail, which will bring the total budget for the facility up to $61 million. But that money largely will just keep things at the status quo.
Last year, Gusman sought about $66 million for the jail, but the budget approved last fall gave him only $28.6 million. That led to confrontations — followed by last-minute appropriations — throughout the year that have heightened the tension between the sheriff and City Hall.
In the meantime, Landrieu is continuing to battle with the sheriff over whether to build a third building as part of the new jail complex — an idea the administration has argued will cause costs to soar even higher and take away from other city priorities.
Gusman issued a statement late Thursday saying the amount the city was allocating to the jail is still not enough.
“At first glance, the mayor’s proposed budget for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office remains $9 million less than the federally appointed monitor said is needed to operate the jail system,” he said in an email.
Another $20 million will go toward increased payments to the firefighters’ pension fund. That essentially amounts to the required payment to the fund going forward and does not resolve either of the firefighters’ suits against the city, which seek $142 million in back pay and interest covering many years, plus tens of millions for the Landrieu administration’s refusal to fully fund the pension system in recent years.
The administration has set aside $10 million to pay court judgments, including both those due to the firefighters and about $35 million owed to other residents with claims against the city dating back to the 1990s.
Landrieu told firefighters Thursday morning they had until the end of the day to reach a deal or he was walking away from negotiations. An undisclosed settlement was reached about 7 p.m.
Exactly how much will be paid out in the deal and over what time period remains under wraps, but the Landrieu administration said in an emailed statement that the settlement “keeps the city on a positive track, gets major reforms to the pension fund and ensures the fund will be there for firefighters in the future.”
That suggests the city wrung at least some of the concessions on benefits it has been seeking from the firefighters, which could lower the city’s pension payments in the future. The deal is also expected to mean the city will ask voters for a tax increase to help pay for the settlement. In previous proposals, the administration estimated it would need to increase property taxes by about 2.5 mills to pay the costs associated with the firefighters’ court judgments.
Other areas of city government will see increases as well.
The NOPD is in line for a $10.5 million budget hike, which will pay for the 15 percent raises for officers the administration proposed earlier this year and allow the force to expand as new recruits are hired. The budget includes money for 1,266 cops, or about 130 officers more than the current level.
The department also will get money to pay for additional overtime, license plate readers to track stolen or suspicious vehicles and 50 new police cars.
More money will be allocated to roadwork and pothole repair. Plans call for having pothole crews working in each council district on a daily basis, with a goal of fixing 70,000 craters by the end of 2016.
Landrieu touted his previous work on streets, saying he has invested 10 times more money in repairs than any previous administration.
The city will ask voters to approve a $100 million bond issue for road repairs in April. That money is expected to be used over about three years.
Even that money, however, will be a drop in the bucket toward the estimated $9 billion in repairs needed to fully reconstruct the city’s minor streets.
The budget also includes money for new firefighters and $5 million to purchase or lease about 20 new fire engines to replace a portion of the aging fleet.
The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission will get another $1.3 million for staffing at newly opened centers, bringing its budget to $14 million.
A total of $17.3 million will go toward affordable housing initiatives, though that money is already included in this year’s spending plan. A fund of about $3 million, now focused on blight reduction, will be redirected to that effort.
Other money will go toward replacing the stopgap measures that allowed the city to limp along in recent years without going bankrupt. A million dollars will go toward replacing federal funding that had propped up the budgets of the planning and permitting departments.
More money will go to various city-funded courts that had been drawing down their reserve funds rather than receiving adequate new funding in recent years.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.