The fissures between Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and the New Orleans City Council were laid bare Friday as the two sides sparred over spending and revenue projections during the first day of hearings on next year’s budget.
Council members were cutting in their criticism of Cantrell’s $698.2 million spending plan, arguing that it should provide more money for cleaning catch basins and questioning whether a proposal to make traffic tickets more expensive bucks a trend locally and nationwide to move away from hefty penalties for minor offenses.
The council must adopt a 2019 budget, probably with either minor or substantial changes to Cantrell's proposals, by Dec. 1.
A push and pull between the administration and council is hardly unusual during the city’s budget season, but council members seem to be taking a more adversarial tone this year than was common under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
That may have been due in part to the focus Friday on the Department of Public Works. Ever since two summer floods last year, council members have been particularly aggressive when probing that department’s operations and in pushing for better results when it comes to the maintenance and repairs needed to keep the drainage system operating.
But the hearing could also portend a more contentious overall budget season for the first-year mayor and the mostly new council members, who have not been shy about letting the mayor know when they’re at odds with her proposals.
The biggest disagreement came during a discussion of the Public Works Department’s budget. Ramsey Green, Cantrell’s deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, had told the council shortly after the mayor took office in May that the administration would seek a major budget increase to deal with the backlog of problems facing the city’s drainage system.
But the budget Cantrell submitted Nov. 1 instead proposes spending about $1.3 million less on Public Works next year. Council members are seeking more funding for cleaning catch basins, filling in potholes and carrying out other tasks assigned to the department.
"Almost every other department is coming to us to ask for more money, and the Department of Public Works is coming to us asking for less," said Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the council’s Public Works Committee.
"I don’t see any materials that say all 68,000 catch basins have been cleaned and all interior piping is being cleaned," he said. "How are we going to address that with less money?"
Clogged catch basins and pipes, which are the responsibility of Public Works, have been blamed for contributing to the 2017 flooding, along with problems with the Sewerage & Water Board's pumps.
Administration officials defended their plan, noting that Public Works' current budget was inflated by spending after last year’s flooding, including an emergency contract to clear almost 21,000 of the drains. Also, they said, the department will not spend all of its budgeted money this year.
Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said it’s possible the administration could shift more money to Public Works in the middle of next year, but that before he provides more money to the department he wants a thorough review of its activities.
"I think a lot of these problems came from just throwing money at it and hoping that it gets done," Montaño said.
"But money is a resource you need to solve a problem," Giarrusso said.
Officials did not have a firm estimate of the number of catch basins cleaned this year but said the department’s goal is to clear 5,000 to 6,000 each year. At that rate, it would take more than 11 years to clean every drain in the city.
Montaño said catch basin cleanings are currently bottlenecked by a lack of employees, which drew more questions from Councilman Jason Williams.
More “money would be paying more people to do more,” Williams said.
Giarrusso, speaking later to reporters, said the administration should be looking to boost the department's budget to hire more workers or, if that doesn’t work, consider awarding contracts to get the basins unclogged.
Several council members said it was tone-deaf for the administration to leave the catch basin funding unchanged even as the department aims to beef up the number of parking enforcement officers who ticket illegally parked vehicles.
“It’s sending a bizarre message out there because I think the priority to the public has always been on the catch basin side,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said.
Another revenue plan announced at the meeting raised more eyebrows.
The budget projects the city will bring in $500,000 more from traffic tickets next year than this year. That money would come from instructing police officers to issue tickets under state law, rather than the city ordinances that have lower fines.
Based on this year’s numbers, Montaño said that would mean fines paid by drivers would increase by $1.2 million, but the administration, erring on the side of caution, put only 40 percent of that figure in the budget.
A more in-depth discussion of the policy on tickets is expected during the hearing on the Police Department's budget Tuesday, but at least one council member signaled that proposal is due more scrutiny.
“Even though the traffic cameras are coming down, if you get a traffic ticket in New Orleans your (fine) is going to be higher?” Moreno asked, referring to the administration’s plan to reduce the number of traffic cameras.
“For the past several years it’s kind of been the reverse,” Moreno said. “We’ve been trying not to fine people so much for low-level offenses.”