Long before New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell presented her administration's first budget to the City Council last week, its members had been urging her to do so sooner.
When Cantrell opposed the council's idea to ask voters to agree to pay new taxes for senior citizens, those members rejected her objections and approved putting the issue on the ballot in March.
And as Cantrell prepared to address funding shortfalls at the Sewerage & Water Board this summer through shutting off water at the homes of customers delinquent on their bills, the council publicly opposed that idea, citing ongoing problems with the agency’s billing system.
The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board's drainage system has completely depleted its cash reserves as the utility's financial picture cont…
All of those clashes are adding intrigue to the council's annual budget hearings, which begin Friday and could give the council yet another platform to flex its muscles against the mayor as the two sides go into negotiations over the city's annual spending plan for the first time.
Although Cantrell was a member of the council until May, this is the first time she has proposed, rather than reacted to, an annual operating budget. The process of reviewing a city budget is also entirely new for four of the council's seven members.
Cantrell, in an interview last week, said she believes the administration and the council are heading into budget season on the same page.
“Based on conversations in terms of meetings (with the council) and in terms of what their priorities are, I feel that they are aligned,” Cantrell said. “At the end of the day, based on what I’m hearing from the public and who we all serve, I know it’s aligned. We are all elected to serve them, and if this is what the people are saying that they want, then I know we aren’t off-base.”
The council’s feistier attitude is unlikely to result in changes to Cantrell’s plan to boost more than 2,000 City Hall employees’ salaries by 10 percent or her proposal for a new "sobering center" for the city’s homeless, both of which have wide support on the council.
A large number of New Orleans city employees would be in line for their first significant, across-the-board pay raise in a decade under the pr…
But some council members say they’re heading into the budget process still unclear on major details about the $698 million spending plan and some of Cantrell’s proposed initiatives.
“I think you’re going to have a lot of council members who have been studying this (736-page document) for the past week and have a lot of questions,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso said.
“We respect the process the mayor and her team went through, but it’s also our job to make sure the money is being spent to the best benefit of the city of New Orleans, and we’re going to take that charge seriously,” Giarrusso added.
Under the City Charter, the council must approve a 2019 budget by Dec. 1.
Public spats between the executive and legislative branches over city spending priorities are hardly new. But they were kept muted during Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, as the council and the mayor hashed out most big arguments behind the scenes in an approach both sides said was more productive than fighting in public.
Heading into this year's budget hearings, council members are not universally raising concerns about Cantrell's plans.
“I’m excited about the direction the mayor is going in,” said Councilman Jay Banks, who represents Cantrell’s former district and has been an ally of hers. “She is focused on trying to improve quality of life and issues that are important to me, I know the devil’s in the details, and we will have to work through to make all the pieces fit.”
But other members suggested the council could press hard on Cantrell’s plans for a new utilities office, question funding levels for the Public Works Department and dig deep into the details of initiatives such as Cantrell’s Clean Up NOLA plan to reduce blight and litter or the several new offices the mayor has set up since the start of her term.
Larger questions about funding, in both the long and short terms, are also likely to crop up.
Councilman Jared Brossett, who chairs the Budget Committee, said he’s asked Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño to address changes in revenue projections the administration is proposing that would boost city revenues.
Some of those involve less conservative projections of revenue growth, while others assume improved collection of various taxes and fees. Brossett said he wants explanations of how likely those projections are to come to fruition.
Montaño will also be asked to address some apparent errors in the budget proposal, Brossett said.
Giarrusso said the council also needs more information on a variety of changes such as at Public Works, where the budget indicates more people will be hired but spending on employees will be reduced.
“Maybe there’s an explanation, but ... I’m not seeing it,” he said. “That’s why we’re looking forward to these meetings, to be able to ask these questions and make sure we have correct information on which to base our decisions.”
Banks acknowledged there would likely be discussion and debate over the budget and the council will eventually make some tweaks to the numbers. But he said he’s not expecting a contentious fight.
“I think all the sides are willing to talk and listen,” he said.