As New Orleans furloughs thousands of public employees and takes on debt to weather a precipitous drop in tax revenue, Mayor LaToya Cantrell came to Baton Rouge Tuesday to implore state lawmakers to deliver more aid money to keep the city afloat.
Cantrell and her top City Hall official described having fewer ambulances to respond to emergencies because of furloughs the city implemented to cut into a $150 million budget deficit. With the state’s largest city heavily dependent on tourism and hospitality, Cantrell said New Orleans will need additional aid above the tens of millions in federal aid flowing to the city for the pandemic.
“There are resources we need to be made whole so we can provide basic city services again for our residents,” Cantrell said in the House Appropriations Committee hearing.
“We are completely cut to the marrow,” added Cantrell’s Chief Administrative Officer, Gilbert Montaño. “We are at the bone. This is not an opportunity to create more efficiencies.”
But Republican lawmakers, skeptical of Cantrell’s approach to coronavirus restrictions, complained about continued limits on high school sporting events, and suggested the mayor isn’t opening bars, restaurants and other businesses quickly enough.
Rep. John Illg, R-River Ridge, argued the city’s limit of 250 people at high school sports games is too restrictive, adding it’s “confusing” to him and to parents in the greater New Orleans area.
“What’s the end game?” Illg said. “Are we waiting for a cure to open back up?”
Cantrell shot back that New Orleans has tamped down its coronavirus numbers to some of the lowest levels in the state, after experiencing a worrying spike in the spring that made the city a national hotspot for the virus. Orleans Parish has a percent positive rate--an important metric of cases compared to tests--of about 1% over the past two weeks, far below the state’s rate.
New Orleans has opened up at a slower pace than much of the rest of the state, at Cantrell’s direction. Cantrell said a “regression” would set the city back even further if it opened up too quickly. She added the city would be moving to “Phase 3.2” soon, allowing bars to operate outdoor patios and expanding high school sports attendance.
“With all due respect we will continue to make progress...I hope we’re making you proud and thank you so much,” Cantrell said drily.
Lawmakers are in a monthlong special session called by Republicans who want to take power, or at least have more oversight, over Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency declarations that lay out coronavirus rules.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said he was less interested in city employees being furloughed than private sector employees being laid off. And he suggested other areas of the state are “just as impacted” by the pandemic as New Orleans, to which Cantrell objected.
“Most of this state wants to put people back to work as quickly as possible even if we have to balance the risk and the loss,” Bacala said.
The state is handing out a little over $530 million in federal stimulus money to local governments whose budgets have taken a beating from the pandemic. That comes after Republicans directed $275 million of the stimulus funds to businesses and $50 million to front-line workers. Cantrell opposed the move to deliver the money to businesses through a grant program, arguing local governments needed the funding.
Orleans Parish has been authorized to receive over $52 million in aid from the program, after applying for about $101 million and being approved for $90.7 million, according to figures provided by Division of Administration Jay Dardenne’s office. That means the city has an additional $38 million in funding it qualifies for but hasn’t received yet because the state created a formula that puts a cap on the amount each area can receive.
Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell said the city expects to submit $202 million in expenditures, after the state allows it to submit the third and fourth "tranches." And the city anticipates receiving $60 million of that request, making it unclear how much of the remaining $142 million it will receive. Cantrell sent a letter to Edwards last month urging him to send more money to New Orleans.
Jacques Berry, a spokesman for Dardenne, said localities will be able to apply for the amount they have qualified for but haven’t received yet. But it’s not clear whether New Orleans will receive all of the money it qualified for. The current application period for the third tranche of funds ends Oct. 22, Berry said.
Edwards initially objected to Republicans’ plans to send $275 million to State Treasurer John Schroder’s office to administer a grant program for businesses, arguing at the time it should go instead to local governments like New Orleans. After it reached his desk, however, Edwards signed the bill.
In recent weeks, Edwards has suggested the leftover money from Schroder’s grant program should go to replenish the state’s depleted unemployment trust fund. Schroder has said he intends to spend all of the money in the grant fund.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.